India fascinates many and confuses many more. Its growing importance is not always understood. In 2015, India’s population stood at 1.28 billion, with a very young median age (27 years – China’s was 36 years). In 20 years, India’s projected population of 1.5 billion will exceed China’s. It will have the world’s youngest population, and its young will be better educated, ambitious and mobile.
There are many other reasons why India is attractive. It has considerable “soft power” across the world, and it is a gateway to many of its Asian neighbors with whom it shares culture and history. Being seen as a friend of India can confer non-material benefits. But India’s neighborhood, like Israel’s, is also a source of many dangers, and both countries are often victims of terrorism. This has created first a tacit, but now an increasingly open convergence of strategic interests – though it must be added that India’s close bonds with Iran are still limiting this convergence.
There are more reasons calling for greater Israeli and Jewish efforts to get nearer to India. One is the rapidly growing influence and power of Indian diasporas in countries that are important for Israel, such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and others. Another is the synergy of India’s needs in water management, agriculture, public health, homeland and cyber security, and Israel’s proven capabilities in these sectors. A third, little recognized reason is a long history of contacts between Indian and Jewish civilizations from Biblical and Talmudic to modern times, which inspired Israel’s founding father Ben-Gurion.
However, the single most important reason why Israel has to pay great attention to India is that this country is entering the Middle East in big, though still discreet steps. Energy is the main driver of India’s moving into the region. In less than 20 years, India has become dependent on Middle Eastern oil and gas as never before, and this dependence will continue to grow. At the same time, the Middle East’s energy suppliers have become existentially dependent on their Asian-Pacific markets.
A corollary of this mutual dependence is the enormous growth of trade, investment and people-to-people contacts between India and the Middle Eastern energy suppliers. Between 2001 and 2015, the total value of India’s trade with the Middle East multiplied 20 fold (30 fold for Saudi Arabia, and 8 fold for entire world). Today, a quarter of India’s world trade is with the Middle East, more than double its trade with the United States. Trade with Israel represents only 5% of India’s total trade with the Middle East. Also, six million Indians are working in Middle Eastern, mainly Arab oil producing countries – by far the largest group of foreign workers there.
The second, and oldest driver of India’s link with the Middle East is Islam. Islam entered India from the 8th century on. It has become an inseparable part of Indian history, civilization, art and music, although Hindus often still resent what they regard as foreign invasions. During India’s long freedom struggle, Gandhi, Nehru, and the Congress Party in general were preoccupied with maintaining India’s unity and preventing the Muslims from creating their own state, and this in turn required particular attention to Muslim sensitivities about Palestine. This, and not hostility to Jews, which never existed in India, explains India’s opposition to Zionism beginning inthe 1920s and to Israel later on. Even after India’s partition in 1947 there remained an external and internal “Muslim constraint” on India’s policies. Apart from ideology and “Third World” solidarity, India feared that relations with Israel would damage relations with the Arab world and compel the latter to support Pakistan, but in the 1990s Indian policy makers understood that the Arabs would always support Pakistan, irrespective of India’s Israel policies.
Finally, in the 21st century India also understood that its Israel relations do not damage its Arab relations. On the contrary, they forced the Arabs to take India seriously, which they had not done before. The internal Muslim constraint lasted longer than the external one, but Modi’s victory weakened it considerably. Still, no Indian government can ignore Indian Muslim sensitivities. In 1947, Muslims represented 7% of India’s population, today approximately 15%. Israel and the Jewish people must seek friendly contacts with the world’s second largest Muslim population, which is preoccupied with internal issues.
Israel’s relations with India are growing rapidly, but remain lop-sided in favor of defense. Defense relations started long before diplomatic relations. They are deep and cover many sectors: arms sales – India is Israel’s biggest weapons market – joint weapons development, joint training, cooperation in combatting terrorism and improving cyber security and more. Some assert that Israel’s arms exports will continue, others predict that they will be stifled by American competition and India’s own weapons production. In any event it is unhealthy to have Indo-Israeli relations depend so much on one sector alone, the military. At least political relations, which had been dormant, have improved considerably since 2014. Trade relations began in 1992 with exchanges amounting to $200 million reached almost $5 billion in 2014. India was Israel’s fastest growing trade partner, but the total sum is still modest compared, for example, to trade with the much smaller Turkey ($5.6 billion) or Belgium ($3.3 billion).
The weakest, yet in the long-term most important link between the two countries is cultural cooperation and information. There is widespread Indian ignorance of Israel, Judaism, and Jewish history, including the Holocaust. With one or two exceptions, Israel, Judaism, and the Hebrew language are not studied at Indian universities. Improving this and other shortcomings will require help from world, and particularly American, Jewry. Although not generally known, American Jewish intervention was essential in moving the Indo-Israeli relationship forward, and it will remain so in the future.