As Modi Visit Approaches, Israel and India Seem Closer Than Ever
Jonathan Adelman is a professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He has taught at the University of Denver since 1978 and served as Condoleezza Rice's doctoral adviser. Adelman has written or edited 12 books and has conducted hundreds of speaking tours all over the world.
As Israel has emerged recently on the world stage, its foreign relationships have blossomed. U.S. President Donald Trump will be visiting Israel at the end of the month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Russian President Vladimir Putin five times in less than two years and speaks to him frequently on the phone. Netanyahu recently went on a tour of four African nations. Israel is working closely with Sunni Arab states that share a hatred and fear of Iran.
Yet, while all these are important, there is another event that may be even more important in the long run — the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July. The prime minister is, significantly, visiting only Israel and skipping the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And his visit follows the visit to Israel last January by Indian Foreign Minister Shushma Swaraj.
India and Israel, surprisingly, have much in common. Both became independent of British colonial masters at nearly the same time, India in 1947 and Israel in 1948. Both were initially Third World countries. Their dominant groups — Indian Hindus and Israeli Jews — had to fight bitter wars of independence against Islamic enemies.
India went on to fight three further wars against Pakistan, in 1965, 1971 and 1999, while Israel has fought 10 more wars.
Both countries were founded by English-speaking socialists, Jawaharlal Nehru and David Ben-Gurion. They are the only two of 140 newly independent states since World War II to be democracies from their inception until today. India was the rare country that never practiced antisemitism, and there was no clash between Judaism and Hinduism. Both countries have advanced from a socialist start to greater integration into the world’s global neo-capitalist economy.
Israeli and Indian emigres to the United States do well and often work together. Recent polls show that more Indians (58 percent) like Israelis than Americans (56 percent). Both are global minorities that fight to save their homelands in which they have strong majorities (75-85 percent).
Today they both face threats from their Islamic enemies. India faces Pakistan and its 100 nuclear weapons (and likely more in the future) while Israel faces Iran, which is working on becoming a nuclear power. Both India and Israel have nuclear arsenals. Neither country has ever seen the other as a threat.
The dominant Indian Hindus and Israeli Jews in the two states face significant Muslim minorities at home and practice religions not common in the rest of the world. Their minorities, 150 million Indian Muslims in India and 1.7 million Muslims in Israel, pose major issues for both countries.
Both are creative countries with significant high-tech power (Indian Bangalore and Hyderabad and Israeli Silicon Wadi). Since India recognized Israel in 1992, relations have grown steadily warmer. Today trade between the two is worth $4 billion a year and Israel is a major arms supplier to India.
India’s economy, which is growing over 7 percent a year, is that of a newly industrializing state with $2.5 trillion GDP. It is the number-six economy in the world, while Israel’s economy is at over $300 billion.
The Indians are interested in possibly creating a $15 billion free trade zone with Israel. This would provide India extensive access to one of the world’s top-five high-tech powers, first world economies ($38,000 GNP/capita) and a leader in modern agriculture. For Israel it would create a mass market (1.3 billion people) that little Israel (8.5 million people) lacks. The Economist several years ago proclaimed that India may pass China as the world’s number one economy in several decades.
In the military arena, as the eighth power in the world and possessing highly advanced anti-missile missiles, Israel could be a good counterbalance to hostile Muslim countries.
Back in the 1950s David Ben-Gurion, bemoaning a hostile “inner circle” of countries, proclaimed that the outer circle might support Israel. He named the Shah’s Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia as countries that might support Israel.
Ben-Gurion would be shocked to learn that in the 2010s the Islamic Republic of Iran was Israel’s leading enemy and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was often hostile.
But he would be thrilled and astounded to learn that a huge country like India might take their place in the outer circle. Only time will tell, but India may well turn out to be one of Israel’s closest friends, bound by common enemies and common aspirations in the 21st century.