Arab-Israel relations: Can India be the fulcrum?

Upon gaining independence, it was only natural that India would seek to build good relations with the Arab world, not for its oil wealth–that came much later–but for the shared religious and cultural heritage. The colonial rule that India and the Arab countries had been subjected to was admittedly another binding factor. The notable absence of empathy for Israel that India demonstrated during the first few decades of its independence was simply a reflex response directed to convince the Arabs of its sincerity. To be friendly with the enemy of a friend would be a kind of betrayal. And that was also the period that India was wedded to lofty ideals.

With the passage of time and in the face of some very compelling reasons, this had to change–only it took longer than it should have.

Besides historical and cultural bonds, there were other considerations that drove India’s pro-Arab policy. To begin with, India aspired to lead the non-aligned movement and for that Arab support was important. Concurrently, there was the requirement of reducing international support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Later to surface were concerns for energy security and the remittances from India’s sizeable work force in this region, especially during the eighties when India’s economy was facing a crisis.

Barring rare exceptions, on all counts India failed to elicit the desired response. Its persistent overtures went unrequited primarily because the Arab nations remained fixated on viewing India through Pakistani eyes. They failed to comprehend the truly secular character of India and that the percentages of each religious denomination do not accurately represent the influence of religions on the people of India. They may be only 16 percent Muslim (the largest number of Muslims in any country other than Indonesia) and three percent Christian, but if you scratch a large percentage of the "others", you discover that deep down the Indian embodies all three faiths, notwithstanding the occasional instances of communal violence.

For over 40 years, India literally pandered to the Arabs and thus hesitated to respond to the hand of friendship proffered by Israel. It was only in the beginning of the nineties that India began to carve a fresh West Asia policy. The timing of the move coincided with the end of the Cold War as also the beginning of Pakistan-sponsored militancy and terrorism in Kashmir. That new economic policies were also launched at the same time could also be construed to mark the beginning of a resurgent India.

From the Israeli perspective, India’s regional significance was obvious. In Asia, India marked the eastern periphery of the Islamic threat. With Pakistan in possession of the "Islamic bomb" and claiming the leadership of the Islamic world, Israel is naturally sensitive to developments in this country. India, like Israel, is the victim of continued terrorist violence sponsored by elements that perhaps have links with each other and maybe share the same patronage. Depending on developments, India can obviously play a critical role in any crisis situation. In any case, fighting terrorism is a common cause between India and Israel and that is sufficient reason for strengthening bilateral ties.

Economically, again India is important. It offers a huge market for Israeli technology especially in the defense sector, electronics, software and agriculture. The rapid increase in Israeli exports to India, particularly of defense equipment, is testimony to the commercial attractiveness of India. Additionally, enormous mutual benefit can be derived through a strategic alliance that seeks to combine Israeli technology and Indian raw materials and low cost labor.

In India’s case, its security posture has improved considerably with the infusion of a wide variety of defense equipment from Israel, in some cases with technologies that were not accessible to India from other sources. If this momentum is maintained, India may witness a significant enlargement of its strategic space as an enhancement of its capability to combat terrorism and militancy. Israel can also contribute substantively in modernizing India’s agricultural sector. Recent bilateral agreements seek to address these issues. Altogether the strengthening of cooperation has led to considerable mutual benefit.

After 9/11, the US-led war against terror is having a profound global effect. The dismantling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the second Gulf War directed at the removal of Saddam Hussein have triggered turmoil in West Asia. With the resistance in Iraq gathering momentum, the US is finding itself somewhat off balance. Consequently, levels of uncertainty are rising in the region. The requirement is for stabilizing forces to step in. And it would appear that the prospects of success would be greater if such forces were to be generated from within Asia.

India’s foreign policy in recent years has begun to acquire a more pragmatic and dynamic character. In such a dispensation, India is unlikely to let concerns for better Indo-Arab relations affect Indo-Israeli relations or vice versa. India remains conscious of the advantages of good relations with the Arab nations, but unless they reciprocate there can be no meaningful forward movement. With Israel, relations are on a firm and irreversible footing.