In November 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an international city (Jerusalem), India, along with Pakistan and the Arab bloc, voted against it. India’s decision was hardly surprising. Even before Independence, leaders of India’s freedom movement had expressed their support for the Palestinians. In 1936, while speaking on Palestine Day (September 27) in Allahabad, Jawaharlal Nehru said that India’s fight for independence was “part of a world struggle against imperialism and fascism, including the struggle that’s going on against British imperialism in Palestine.” Two years later, Gandhi wrote in Harijan that “[I]t is wrong to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.”
Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel
The Jewish leadership in Palestine accepted the UN partition plan, while the Arab bloc rejected it. Nehru’s position was that India, having gone through Partition, should not support the partition of Palestine. He compared the Zionists in Palestine to the Muslim League of undivided India. The state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. India, adopting a pragmatic position, recognised the Jewish state in 1950, but stopped short of establishing full diplomatic relations. Throughout the Cold War era, India remained a vocal supporter of the Palestine cause. Over the past 30 years, India’s relationship with Israel has evolved a great deal. Azad Essa, a journalist, explores the historical background as well as the ideological underpinnings of this relationship in Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel.
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Essa argues that even when India remained a strong supporter of the Palestine cause, it was involved in behind-the-scenes deals with Israel, right from Nehru’s time onwards. Defence ties between the two countries go back to the 1960s. When India was under attack from China in 1962, Nehru reached out to world leaders for help. When much of the world turned away, Israel offered to send weapons to New Delhi. Israel did the same in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan as well as during the Kargil crisis.
Similarities between world views
These offers of help at times of crisis cemented the ties between the military-industrial complexes of both countries. Today, defence is the most important component of the Indo-Israel partnership. “Between 1997 and 2000, 15 per cent of Israel’s exports made their way to India,” writes Essa. “Over the next five years, weapon deliveries ballooned 27 per cent. In 2006, Israel’s arms exports were worth $4.2 billion of which India accounted for $1.5 billion worth of imports on its own. Between 2003 and 2013, India became the single largest purchaser of Israeli arms... Israel had become India’s second largest arms supplier after Russia.”
India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister. In the subsequent years, according to Essa, three historical developments drove the India-Israel ties to the next level: the rise of the BJP to power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998; Pokhran-II, India’s nuclear explosion in 1998; and the September 11, 2001, terror attack on the US and its subsequent war on terror.
Essa argues that there are similarities between the BJP’s Hindu-majoritarian world view and the Zionist’s views on Israel being a religious state. A broad ideological cohesion between Hindutva and Zionism turbocharged the partnership. When India came under attack from the US and other countries for Pokhran-II, Israel (itself an undeclared nuclear power) refrained from criticising India. When the war on terror emerged as a major theme for cooperation between countries, ties between India and Israel further deepened. Essa writes that the attack on Parliament House in India in December 2001 “provided the impetus for New Delhi to become an agent of Washington”.
In Essa’s perspective, the convergence of ethnonationalist ideologies is the bedrock of India-Israel ties. He writes: “India had normalised relations with Israel in 1992 without Palestinians achieving statehood or self-determination. In 2014, New Delhi went one step further. It upgraded its public appreciation for Zionism and Israel and reduced its foreign policy to a contorted and performative sympathy for the Palestinian cause.” The dehyphenation the Narendra Modi government pursued with regard to Israel and Palestine means “political and economic pragmatism with Israel and charity for the compromised Palestinian leadership.”
Over-reliance on ideological conclusions
It is true that relations between India and Israel improved rapidly after the BJP came to power. Essa’s characterisation of Hindutva and Zionism as two majoritarian ideological projects is also valid. But is this ideological convergence the main driver of the transformation of the India-Israel relationship? One of the main drawbacks of Hostile Homelands is its over-reliance on its own ideological conclusions and the omission of the other possible factors that shape the behaviour of nation states. The book overlooks India’s self-interest and the role of realism in its foreign policy choices.
“Is this ideological convergence the main driver of the transformation of the India-Israel relationship? ”
Essa writes about Nehru’s decision to buy weapons from Israel at a time when India was a supporter of the Palestinian cause as an example of India’s duplicity. But look at 1962 from India’s point of view. India was attacked by China; the Soviet Union was preoccupied with the Cuban missile crisis and India lacked any major international backer in the moment of a crisis. Israel, completely isolated in West Asia, used this opportunity to reach out to India. As a country with two hostile neighbours and which was not part of any alliance system during the Cold War, India found defence supplies from Israel as critical for its interests. But even when the defence partnership continued, India remained a supporter of the Palestine cause. India’s policy changed in the 1990s when the global order changed.
Parallels between Kashmir and Palestine
Essa attacks India for normalising ties with Israel before Palestinians achieved their statehood. Palestinians themselves recognised Israel a year later—they still have not achieved statehood. The Oslo process, which began in 1993, led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and provided fresh momentum for India’s ties with Israel. In the 1967 Arab League Summit in Khartoum, Arab countries passed the “Three No’s” resolution—no talks with Israel, no peace with Israel and no recognition of Israel. A decade later, Egypt became the first Arab country to recognise Israel. In 1994, during the Oslo years, Jordan did the same. In 2020-21, four more Arab countries—the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—normalised relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords. These developments influenced India’s policy towards Israel as well.
In his attempt to draw parallels between Kashmir and Palestine, Essa overlooks the complex history of both regions. Israel is a settler colonial nation that was created inside Palestine based on the biblical claim of the Jews. By its own Basic Law, Israel is identified as the “nation state for the Jewish people”. In the territories it occupies, including East Jerusalem which has been annexed by Israeli law, Palestinian Arabs do not have citizenship or equal rights. It is a rare country without officially recognised borders, which means expansionism is part of its foreign and security policies. In contrast, India, which became independent after decades of anti-colonial struggle, is a constitutional secular republic which guarantees equal rights to all citizens.
While discussing Kashmir, Essa consistently overlooks the role of Pakistan, which supported a rebellion against Raja Hari Singh, who signed an Instrument of Accession with India. He writes that the US-led war on terror continued to characterise Kashmir’s “indigenous resistance movement” as terrorism, as if terrorism does not exist in the valley. The role Pakistan continues to play by supporting terrorist and militant groups is hardly discussed in the chapters that draw parallels between the Kashmir dispute and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The declaration that India emerged as an agent of the US during the war on terror is not supported by facts. India has always been wary of becoming an ally of great powers. India’s reluctance was on full display during Russia’s Ukraine invasion. It refused to join Western sanctions on Russia, refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and then stepped up economic cooperation with Russia–this is hardly the behaviour of a US agent.
Essa says India is a state “that is now firmly in the hands of a fiction called the nation”. It is “a proto fascist state” with deep ties with Israel and a “fraught experiment with democracy”. Such declarations remind one of the colonial pessimisms of the 1950s about democracy and free elections in the land of “snake charmers and illiterates”.