By Razi Iqbal
Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
To the naked eye, there does not exist a more diverse pair of countries than India and Israel. India is the 7th largest country in the world covering the better part of the Asian subcontinent whereas Israel is a tiny country in West Asia, situated on the south eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, covering a land area of 21000 sq. meters. Demographically speaking, India is the 2nd most populated country in the world with 1.25 billion whereas Israel’s population stands at 8 million. While India defines itself as a land of intermingling of cultures and religions based of the lines of mutual acceptance towards one and all, Israel is a self-proclaimed “Jewish and democratic state”, formed on the basis of religion calling itself “the land of Zion”.
However, underlying the asymmetry, there exist many features which the two countries have in common. Contemporary India was formed in 1947 after its independence from the British rule and partition along the lines of religion (creation of Pakistan as a Muslim majority state) while Israel came into being in 1948, after a resolution was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations for creation of a Jewish state. Israel, just like India, has a volatile neighbourhood to deal with. Israel is surrounded by Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Palestine whereas India has Pakistan and China to keep it at its toes. India has been afflicted with terrorism operating from the land of its neighbour Pakistan, just like Israel, which has been tackling terrorist operations from Palestine(though Israel has been more vocal in its attack on terrorism with its operation in Gaza against Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization as recent as in 2012).
The relationship between two countries has not always been affable. Going back into history, India voted against the creation of Israel in the General Assembly in 1948, but recognized it as a new state in 1950. Mahatma Gandhi said about Israel “my sympathies are with the Jews…but my sympathy does not blind me to the requirement of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me”. For four decades till 1990, relations were maintained at a low key consular level. The relations eased up after the disintegration of the soviet bloc when India identified the need to connect more to the world and searched for new areas of diplomatic developments. Though the relationship has taken positive strides in the last 2 decades, the two countries haven’t stood on the same plane regarding a number of issues. India has expressed concern over continuous expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territories and the attacks by the Israeli army in Gaza. India provides support to Palestine in monetary terms as well as technical help to the Palestine National Authority. India’s stand towards dismantling Iran’s nuclear power has been soft compared to that of US and Israel because of India’s dependence on Iran for oil supplies.
Nonetheless, India is now Israel’s largest market for defence products and services. Co-operation in areas like counter terrorism and joint military exercises have grown. Non-military commerce has also grown with India being the second largest export market for Israel and Israel being India’s seventh largest trading partner. One reason why India has been apprehensive in taking its diplomatic relationship with Israel to the next level is because of the way in which Indian Muslims look at the relationship of these two nations (perhaps with suspicion, if not hatred).Indian Muslims form a huge vote bank in Indian politics and no government wants to take the risk of losing such a wide vote base just for the sake of a foreign policy. This is one reason why face to face diplomatic meetings have been kept at minimal, especially on Indian soil. The fact that the last visit by an Israeli prime minister took place in the year 2003 when Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi reinforces this point of view.
Policy makers need to get ahead of this hesitation and realize the importance of Israel in helping India fight its own domestic problems. Israel has come up with latest agricultural techniques where crops can be grown without land and minimal water. Developments like these are very useful for India who is fighting to keep pace with the growing population and declining agricultural productivity (albeit, individual states like Bihar have been in touch with Israel regarding its own domestic problems). Common problems such as Islamist terrorism, intelligence sharing and nuclear policy should be discussed at a broader level leaving aside the hesitation of vote bank politics influencing foreign policy. Persuading the Arab world that growing ties with Israel won’t affect India’s strong relationship with Arabs (more so because of India’s reliance on the Arabs for oil supply) won’t do any harm to India’s west Asia policy. Shashi Tharoor described India’s relationship with Israel as “love that dare not speak its name”. It must be said that though this observation has been uncomfortably precise, it’s high time to accept the importance of our relationship with the land of Zion and embrace it fully disregarding the petty impact it might have on the Indian political scenario. The advantages seem to outweigh the loss by a huge margin.
Razi is a first year economics student at Shri Ram college of commerce, Delhi university. A cricket fanatic and an avid reader, Razi believes that ‘the big bang theory’ and his passion for biking provide him the necessary fuel in his life. His interests in economics lie in psychology based subjects like game theory and behavioral economics. His focus in life right now is on the subject ‘how to best enjoy college life’.