India’s High-Wire Balance on Israel and Palestine


In recent years, India’s growing ties with Israel and its policy posture towards Palestine have been a subject of intense public debate both inside and outside of India. Supporters have argued that the shift in the orientation of Indian foreign policy, in terms of its changed policy towards Israel, bears the mark of “realism” and “pragmatism” and a more balanced approach to the Middle East dictated naturally by changed global circumstances and national interest. Critics, however, have accused the succeeding Indian Governments during the past two decades of abandoning India’s independent foreign policy, of deviating from the Nehruvian national consensus on the Palestine issue, and of towing a subservient pro-Israeli line. In view of these different perspectives, it is imperative to make a critical assessment of India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine to understand its actual policy posture.

India-Israel Relationship Since 1992

India recognized Israel on 17 September 1950, two years after it declared independence in 1948. There was however no diplomatic relationship between the two countries until 1992. India’s traditional support for the Arabs in the conflict in Palestine and its strong commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) were the major reasons for the absence of a normal liaison between Delhi and Tel Aviv. However, on January 29, 1992, India established full diplomatic relations with Israel. The decision to engage evolved out of a gradual process. The beginnings of the shift in Indian policy began in the mid-1980s, when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, known for his non-ideological approach to foreign affairs, met his Israeli counterpart Shimon Pares during the annual UN General Assembly session in September 1985. A subsequent cascade of international and domestic factors: the end of the Cold War, the emergence of the United States as the only Super Power, the PLO strategy change towards Israel, the start of the Middle East peace process, the liberalization of the Indian economy, the delinking of Pakistan from India’s Mid-East policy, the rising problem of terrorism in the country, and a change in India’s domestic politics all influenced India’s decision towards Israel.
The India-Israel relationship started at low ebb during the Congress regime of P.V Narasimha Rao (1991-1996), and reached a relative high point during the BJP led National Democratic Alliance regime led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004).
During the Kargil War of 1999, when Pakistani intruders had taken up positions on the higher reaches of the Kargil mountains, Israel responded quickly to India’s requests for arms and sent Heron and Searcher unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to locate and identify the Pakistani-held positions. It also supplied ammunition for the Bofors field guns and night vision equipment, both of which played key roles in the conflict1. In the post-Kargil years, the relationship improved significantly. The Indian Home Minister, L.K. Advani and External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh each visited Israel in quick succession in 2000, followed by the state visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India in September 2003. When the United Progressive Alliance Government under the Congress leadership came to power in mid-2004, it decided to follow the same line of the policy as adopted by the NDA regime. The Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar visited Israel in November 2005 and May 2006, and Commerce Minister Kamal Nath in November 2005. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna visited Israel on January 9-10, 2012 against the backdrop of 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Today, India and Israel are cooperating on many fronts. The India-Israel Initiative for Industrial R&D signed in May, 2005 focuses on nanotechnology, biotechnology, space, water management and non-conventional energy sources. The Agriculture Work Plan program, launched in 2006, helps bring Israeli agricultural technologies to Indian farmers. Israel now has 27 agriculture projects in over seven Indian states and will sponsor 100 post-doctoral scholarships for Indians2. On the defense front, India has become the biggest market for Israeli arms. According to one estimate, defense trade between India and Israel amounted to almost $9 billion3. Israel provides India with missile radar, border monitoring equipment and other similar high-tech military hardwires. The two countries are also cooperating on counter-terrorism. Several thousand Indian soldiers have been provided with “anti-insurgency training in Israel”. Bilateral trade and economic relations between the two have also progressed rapidly. From US$ 200 million in 1992 (comprising primarily diamonds), merchandise trade diversified and reached US$ 5.15 billion in 20115. In 2011, India was the 8th largest trade partner of Israel, and 3rd largest in Asia. A Free Trade Agreement which is currently under negotiation between the two countries would be a huge catalyst for their business relationship. Israeli companies and entrepreneurs would benefit from India’s huge market of 1.2 billion people, as well as the growing middle class of 300 million. In 2010, nearly 40,000 Israeli tourists and businessmen visited India. In 2012, the two countries celebrated the 20th anniversary of establishment of their full diplomatic relations.

India’s Support to Palestine Since 1992

While maintaining close ties with Israel, India has extended consistent and unwavering support to the cause of Palestine. This is evident from the high-level political contacts between the Indian and Palestinian leadership from time to time, India’s economic and humanitarian support to the people of Palestine, and an active diplomatic support at various international forums such as the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement Summit. The Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, for instance, was a regular visitor to India. Until his death in 2004, he made several important official visits to India and had easy access to India’s leadership. Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat as the new President of the Palestine National Authority, also visited India in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2012. During his 2008 visit, he laid the foundation stone of the Chancery-cum-Residences Complex of the Embassy of Palestine, built in New Delhi, as a gift of the Government and people of India. From the Indian side, the Home Minister, Lal Krishna Advani and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Palestine in 2000. S.M. Krishna, the present External Affairs Minister also visited Palestine on January 11, 2012. He met President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and reiterated India’s strong support to the Palestinian cause. The Minister also held bilateral talks with his Palestinian counterpart Riyad al-Malki and attended a wreath laying ceremony on the Mausoleum of Yasser Arafat.
India has also played an important role in the nation-building process of Palestine by providing much-needed economic, institutional and humanitarian assistance. Following the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) in Washington between Israel and the PLO in 1993, India established a Representative Office to the Palestine National Authority which was opened on 24 June 1996.  This office was later shifted to Ramallah in the West Bank in 2003. India has given regular untied budgetary support to the Palestinian National Authority to meet its responsibilities. It has also trained Palestinian diplomats, security and technical personnel and offered scholarships to Palestinian students for pursuing higher studies in India.  However, until 2008, most of Indian financial support or budget assistance had gone to the PNA. The Indian government has put more emphasis on multilateral relief since 2009. India regularly contributes to the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) which provides education, health, micro-finance and social services to more than four million Palestine Refugees spread across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. India’s annual contribution to the UNRWA for the year 2011-12 was US$ 1 million. India has also provided essential items such as foods, medicines, and hospital equipment to the Palestinian people as and when needed.
India has participated and contributed several million US dollars at a number of International Donors Conferences on Palestine that have been used for funding developmental projects in that country. They include: a college in Ramallah, a cardiology health centre in Nablus (Al Shifa Hospital), a new Prime Ministry in Ramallah, a school in Abu Abu Dees in Jerusalem, a Software Technology & Industrial Park in Gaza, a Centre and a Chair for Indian Studies at the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, a park and zoo in Jenin and a Multipurpose Sports Centre at Ramallah. India is also actively involved in two more IBSA-funded projects in Palestine that are being proactively pursued: the rehabilitation of the ‘Al-Quds Hospital’ in Gaza; and construction of a ‘Centre for People with Special Needs’ in Nablus.
To boost bilateral trade, a Memorandum of Understanding in Bilateral Economic Cooperation was signed between India and Palestine in 1997. The MoU provided a structured framework for cooperation in diverse areas like commerce, trade, science, technology, industrial collaboration, information and broadcasting. The volume of direct bilateral trade between India and Palestine which was US$ 5.2 million in 1998 increased to US$ 32 million in 2003. Products imported from India include fabrics, yarns, readymade garments, household appliances, stationery products, leather products, industrial tools and accessories, basmati rice, spices, vaccines and pharmaceutical products, sanitary wares, marble and granites.
Besides providing economic, technical and humanitarian assistance, India has also worked to build international consensus in favour of Palestinian interests at various international forums such as the United Nations and NAM summit. India as President of the Security Council was instrumental in having UN Security Council Resolution No 799 of 18 December 1992 passed, which inter alia condemned Israel for the expulsion of more than 400 Palestinians from the occupied territories10. India co-sponsored the draft resolution on “the Right of Palestinians to Self-Determination” during the 53rd session of the UN General Assembly and voted in its favour.  India also voted in favour of UN General Assembly Resolution in October 2003 against construction of the security wall by Israel and supported subsequent resolutions of the UNGA in this regard. At the Tenth Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly which was reconvened on 16-20 July 2004 to consider the item on the “Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”, India voted in favour of the resolution which, inter alia, acknowledged the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. Following Israel’s military operations in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009, the UNGA called for an immediate ceasefire by Israel in line with the UNSCR 1860. India reiterated its resolute opposition to all acts of terror and violence during the UN session. India also supported a UN resolution (drafted by Arab and NAM nations) that was put to vote in the General Assembly on November 5, 2009 endorsing the Goldstone Report (also known as the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict) which required Israel and Palestine to investigate war crimes in the Gaza Strip. India co-sponsored and voted in favour of a draft resolution at the United Nations on February 18, 2011 that termed Israeli settlement policies as ‘illegal.’ When President Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application to the UN to recognize Palestine as a state, the Indian Prime Minister in his speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2011, stated that “India looked forward to welcoming Palestine as an equal member of the United Nations and the time was not far when Palestinians would realize their dream to have a state of their own and an honorable member of the international community”. Despite strong opposition by the US and Israel, India along with Brazil, China, Russia and South Africa, and France has voted in the UNESCO to admit Palestine as its full member.
To demonstrate its support for Palestine, India has participated at the Ministerial Meeting of the NAM Committee on Palestine held at Putrajaya, Malaysia on 13 May 2004 which decided to establish a Ministerial delegation under Malaysia, to interact with the Quartet (UN, EU, US and Russia) and the P-5, to facilitate forward movement in the Middle East peace process. India also supported adoption,

by the General Assembly, of the NAM resolution entitled “Reaffirming the Central Role   of   the United Nations   in the Maintenance   of International    Peace and Security   and Promotion of International Cooperation” on 5 August 2004. At the 14th Summit meeting of the NAM in Havana in September 2006, Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh emphasized that the international community must address more fully its responsibility “to resolve the Palestine issue and bring to an end once and for all the long years of suffering of the Palestinian people.
India has also participated in the New Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership Ministerial Conference on Capacity Building for Palestine at Jakarta in July 200817. In July 2008, at the ministerial meeting in Tehran of the NAM Committee on Palestine, India’s Minister of External Affairs, Pranab Mukherjee pledged to continue to work with other members of the committee in an endeavor to collectively support the Palestinian cause18. External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna participated in the Ministerial Meeting of the NAM Committee on Palestine held on 13 July, 200919. Prime Minister Singh also raised the issue of Palestine in his address at the 15th summit of the NAM (11-16 July, 2009) at Sharm al-Sheikh and emphasized that the Movement must do more “to facilitate a comprehensive, just, lasting and peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue”. Minister of External Affairs S. M. Krishna participated in the NAM Ministerial as well as IBSA+Indonesia+ Palestine on ‘Palestine’ in New York on the sidelines of 65th UNGA in September 2010 during which India welcomed “direct talks” between Israel and Palestine.
While the Government of India has adopted a balanced and pragmatic approach towards both Israel and Palestine, the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian lobbies in India each agitate for their respective hard lines. The pro-Israelis want New Delhi to establish a strategic partnership with Tel Aviv. Their argument is based on a number of reasons. First, India and Israel have no serious bilateral problems; their only major difference is the Palestine issue. Both countries, they maintain, cherish identical values and face common challenges – they share a historical background as ancient civilizations, were administered as colonies by Great Britain, and achieved independence less than a year apart (India in August 1947 and Israel in May 1948). Both countries identify as democracies and survived in a sea of hostility, surrounded by implacable adversaries and a heavily militarized security environment. In short, India and Israel have far more in common with each other than with the nations that surround them, so there should be an enduring partnership between the two. Second, the emergence of an Islamic bloc and the threat of Islamic terrorism make it essential for India and Israel to forge a partnership. B. Gautam, for instance, argues that India and Israel perceive “Islamic terrorism as a common enemy. If Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir is nothing short of terror, Palestinian militancy in Israel is equally terrifying”.

Brajesh Mishra, a former National Security Adviser of India, similarly argues that “As the main targets of international terrorism, democratic countries (read India-Israel and the USA) should form a viable alliance against terrorism and develop the multi-lateral mechanisms to counter it”. Third, it is argued that India can strike an important note in its ties with United States through Israel and American Jewish groups. The convergence of interests between India and Israel (both have large, committed and conservative diasporas) is playing out in Washington, where Jewish and Indian-American groups have been joining forces.
The pro-Palestine elements however strongly oppose any move towards Israel and put forward equally powerful counter-arguments against a strategic alliance between India-Israel. As far as the commonalities between India and Israel are concerned, they argue that India is a pluralist secular democracy while Israel prides itself on being an exclusivist and semi-theocratic Jewish state. In other words, while Israel unabashedly defends the rights of Jews over all others, India (as a state) has never claimed religious exclusivism for its Hindu citizens. Second, the pro-Israelis argue that the emergence of an Islamic bloc in world politics makes it essential for India to move closer to Israel.  According to Bansidhar Pradhan, the talk of the emergence of an ‘aggressive Islamic bloc’ is basically an American projected new horror in the post-Cold War politics28. He further argues that the Muslim world has never been a monolithic bloc nor is it in the process of becoming one. It is also absurd to think that the entire Islamic bloc will gang up against India on Pakistan’s plea simply because they are Muslim countries. Pakistan has been trying this ever since 1947 but only with limited success. India has been able to maintain fairly cordial relationship with the Muslim countries over the years.
As for the gains of Indo-Israeli cooperation against terrorism, the pro-Palestinians consider them greatly exaggerated. First, they point to fundamental differences between the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the Palestine issue. India is fighting against Pakistan, which is not only occupying almost one third of Jammu and Kashmir, but is also using the territory as a springboard for terrorist operations aimed at subverting an internationally recognized democratic order. Israel on the contrary, is in occupation of Palestinian land and the Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza are resisting the illegal occupation. Second, they argue that the Israeli success combating terrorism is at best dubious. The fact that the Israelis today are more insecure than ever before speaks enough about the effectiveness of the Israeli approach to terrorism. As Harsh Pant argues, “Israel’s tough policy toward contentious neighbors and the Palestinians has not brought peace and security, but has rather served to entrench hatred in the Arab world”. Third, India executes its counter-insurgency operations in a more restrained manner than Israel. What support it requires is mostly in arms and equipment and India already receives plenty of those without the presence of full strategic partnership. Finally, at the policy level, India’s so called common cause with Israel in fighting terrorism may send a wrong message to other allies in the region with which India has substantial relations in diverse fields. Iran is one such country which is concerned with the growing Indo-Israeli strategic cooperation. Similarly Pakistan is sure to exploit the anti-terrorism front between India and Israel by giving it a religious color.  As A.K Pasha has rightly remarked “India has both the capacity and the experience to overcome all threats from Pakistan without outside help and ‘to give an impression that India would tackle this threat with (Israel’s) expertise or experience sends the wrong signal to many people both at home and abroad.”
The pro-Palestinians are not only against an India-Israel partnership, but also against what they perceive as a diminished commitment to the cause of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty, contending that India’s support for Palestine has entered a milquetoast realm of mere statements, resolutions and occasional economic assistance.
The question is: Is India really interested in an alliance-like partnership with Israel?  The history of India’s foreign policy and the role of strategic culture that shapes the nation’s thought and behavior would suggest otherwise. India’s long colonial history and its leadership at the Non-Aligned Movement have built a strong domes­tic consensus around retaining its strategic autonomy. This desire to project independence has factored into its UN vote on Iran, the decision re­garding troop deployment in Iraq, the vigorous domestic debate on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, and its diplomatic posture at the international trade negotiations at Doha and climate change summit at Copenhagen. In all these cases, the domestic politi­cal dialogue revolved around the primacy of India’s sovereignty and ensuring that decisions were made to promote the nation’s interests. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated during the parliamentary debate on the nuclear deal, “Nothing will be done that will compromise, dilute, or cast a shadow on India’s full autonomy in the management of its security and national interests.”
Strategic culture also plays a significant role in the formulation and implementation of India’s foreign and security policy. The nation’s strategic culture–the idea that each political community has a particular and individual approach to security policy–has evolved over the country’s millennial history with myriad influences dating back to periods of great triumph as well as distress. The key strands of India’s strategic culture include: strategic autonomy, military force as one of the many components of power; non-time bound goals and a nuanced approach to resolution of problems. These traits which may be considered as the core or skeleton of India’s strategic culture, have not changed essentially despite shifts in India’s strategic foreign and security policies during and after the Cold War and would continue to influence and guide the nation’s foreign and security policy including its policy towards Israel  in future.
Apart from historical and cultural reasons, India would follow an independent foreign policy and not to seek any tight alliance with Israel because such a posture also best suits its national interests. The main objective of India’s political, military and economic leadership is to make the country a “major global player” and the leadership is fully aware that, without the active technological, economic and military support from other great powers, the nation simply cannot hope to achieve its goals fully. To meet these needs, India has pursued a multifaceted foreign policy and increased its engagement with the United States, China, European Union, Russia, Israel and other major powers of the world in recent years. Thus, contrary to contemporary beliefs, India’s policy of courting all major powers simultaneously and seeking special relationship with them is not haphazard. Instead “it is a sophisticated policy whose endeavor is to create the necessary balance of power in its geo-strategic environment in order to concentrate on economic, technological and military matters indispensable to its emergence as a true great power.”

Moreover, any alliance relationship encompassing all security and defense issues necessarily depends on the broad convergence of interest between two partners. This is clearly lacking between India and Israel. India is unlikely to share neither Israeli concerns over Iranian and Islamic radicalism nor Israel of India’s concerns over China. Also due to traditional political relations, geographic proximity, dependency upon petroleum resources and labor migration to the Middle East, India is unlikely to abandon its close ties with the Arab world. Indian Muslims who are the largest minority in the country have been traditionally sympathetic towards the Islamic countries and their perceived opposition significantly contributed to the prolonged absence of political relations between India and Israel. All this would prevent India to enter into an alliance relationship with Israel.


Since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the world has changed dramatically. So has the perception and attitude of the Arab countries towards Israel. This is evident in their recognition of Israel and participation in the Middle East peace process. India’s changed posture towards Israel reflects the reality of these circumstances. And since there was no diplomatic relationship between India and Israel for so long, it’s only natural that their relationship would catch up. This doesn’t mean that Indian support for the Palestinians has eroded. India is still committed to the full realization of the political rights of the Palestinians and endorses their demand for statehood and sovereignty. It continues to provide much-needed economic, institutional and humanitarian assistance to them. But there is a tendency among a section of the Indian population to interpret everything through a zero-sum approach i.e., Israel’s gain is Palestine’s loss and vice versa. It is important to recognize that full-throated condemnation of Israel and diplomatic disengagement from the Jewish state serves the interests of no one. What is actually important is that India use its leverage with Israel to work towards a just and fair solution to the matter Palestinian statehood and sovereignty.