Indian police officers in New Delhi flank activists at a protest in solidarity with Palestinians, condemning Israel’s war on Gaza. Photo: Hindustan Times / IMAGO
Indian police officers in New Delhi flank activists at a protest in solidarity with Palestinians, condemning Israel’s war on Gaza. Photo: Hindustan Times / IMAGO

INTERVIEW: India and Israel’s deepening ties and the implications for Southasia

Interview with Rohan Venkat on the defence and economic partnership driving India-Israel relations, and how this is a departure from India’s history of solidarity with Palestine

Israel's brutal bombardment of Gaza has killed over 20,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 50,000 others since the 7 October attack by Hamas.

While India strongly condemned the attack and expressed solidarity with Israel, India recently voted in favour of several draft resolutions in the United Nations that criticised Israel's conduct in Gaza and supported aid for Palestinian civilians, after initially abstaining on a resolution that had called for an immediate humanitarian truce and unhindered humanitarian access in the Gaza strip. This signifies that deeper shifts have taken place in India's approach to Israel.

For most of independent India's history, New Delhi had no diplomatic relations with Israel. Today, Indian and Israeli flags are displayed together at rallies demonstrating solidarity with Israel. India and Israel under Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu have developed a significant military partnership and growing economic ties.

In a review essay on Azad Essa's Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance between India and Israel, for Himal Southasian, Rohan Venkat explores the ideological convergence of Hindutva and Zionism, and the consequences for Kashmir and Palestine – and argues there is much more driving India and Israel's deepening ties. Rohan Venkat is a Non-Resident Visiting Scholar and Consulting Editor at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. He writes India Inside Out, a newsletter on Indian politics, foreign policy and history.

In this edition of Himal Interviews, Rohan Venkat talks about how the most potent commonality between India and Israel isn't in the trade and defence ties they have been building over the past three decades. Instead, Rohan explores how the ideological movements that lie at the core of India and Israel's political leadership today serve to justify the excesses of both states, and the wider implications of this for Southasia.

Rohan Venkat's recommendations:

Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel by Azad Essa Pluto Press (February 2023)

The Evolution of India's Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise Since 1922 by Nicolas Blarel. Oxford University Press (January 2015)

India's Israel Policy by P R Kumaraswamy. Columbia University Press (July 2010)

The Ezra Klein Show by The New York Times

Minor Detail Adania Shibli. Fitzcarraldo Editions and New Directions Publishing (June 2017)

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. Ecco (June 2007)

This interview is now available on SoundcloudSpotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube.

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This is a machine-generated, minimally copy-edited transcript of a podcast interview and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording here.

Shwetha Srikanthan: Israel's brutal bombardment of Gaza has killed over 20,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 50,000 others in just over two months since the 7 October attack by Hamas. While India strongly condemned the attack and expressed solidarity with Israel, India recently voted in favour of several draft resolutions in the United Nations that criticised Israel's conduct in Gaza and supported aid for Palestinian civilians after initially abstaining on a resolution that had called for an immediate humanitarian truce and unhindered humanitarian access in the Gaza Strip. This signifies that deeper shifts have taken place in India's approach to Israel. For most of independent India's history, New Delhi had no diplomatic relations with Israel. India and Israel under Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu have developed a significant military partnership and growing economic ties. In a review essay on Azad Essa's Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel for Himal Southasian, Rohan Venkat explores the ideological convergence of Hindutva and Zionism and the consequences for Kashmir and Palestine. and argues there is much more driving India and Israel's deepening ties.

Rohan Venkat is a non-resident visiting scholar and consulting editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes the India Inside Out newsletter on Indian politics, foreign policy, and history. Rohan Venkat is here with us today to discuss how the most potent commonality between India and Israel isn't in the trade and defence ties they have been building over the past three decades. Instead, Rohan explores how the ideological movements that lie at the core of India and Israel's political leadership today serve to justify the excesses of both states and the wider implications of this for South Asia.

Hello, Rohan, and welcome to Himal Interviews, and thank you very much for speaking with us today.

Rohan: Thank you so much for having me on.

Shwetha: So to start us off, could you give us an overview of India's response to the Israel-Gaza war and how the turn towards Tel Aviv that New Delhi has taken more recently is a departure from the country's history of solidarity with Palestinians? 

Rohan: So in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack on October 7th and then the subsequent response from the Israeli state, India, for the most part, maintained official silence, which is to say that the Foreign Ministry, the External Affairs Ministry of India, did not comment for a few days on what was going on. Instead, the only official response that we got was Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking up in solidarity with Israel on the issue initially, and then having a phone call with Netanyahu a few days later. And that alone was already a signal of something of a departure from previous times, where India always sought to mention the Palestinian issue when talking about Israel, even in complex situations like this one. And over time, it became clear, as India initially abstained from a call for a humanitarian truce with the terminology that was being used for some sort of ceasefire at the time, it was clear that India was not entirely aligning with the Israelis, not in the way that the Americans have or certain other Western states have, but was taking a slight departure from its own positions. 

And to understand that, we have to know, as you asked about the broader history of India, India's attempts at creating something of a policy for both Israel and Palestine. The story is complex and somewhat convoluted in part because these are two post-colonial states that were birthed around the same time in the late 1940s, and have struggled to figure out exactly how to deal with each other. But I think the simple contours of it are that India, after making some initial efforts to recognise Israel, decided not to, although a consulate was opened up in the early years after independence, and then didn't officially recognise Israel until the 1990s. During that period, it was quite a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, becoming the first country in the world to recognise the PLO and frequently speaking up on behalf of the Palestinians. Starting in the 1990s, the big question of normalisation switched. 

This is also soon after the fall of the Berlin war, the end of the USSR, and as we move to the American unipolar movement, as well as a bunch of changes within the politics of India, where the ground shifts a bit further to the right, India opens up official ties with Israel and slowly, initially, and then much faster as the first BJP right-wing government takes charge in Delhi in the late 90s, India's ties with Israel have become stronger and stronger, but it's still seen as being balanced with support for the Palestinian cause. In the last decade, Prime Minister Modi has been much clearer about shedding those tropes of history. His external affairs minister has spoken about the hesitations of history that, because of vote bank politics at home, have kept India away from a national partner in Israel. And so the last 10 years, we've seen much more open support for Israel, open connections with the Israeli state and Israeli economy, and a general attempt to de-hyphenate the Israeli-Palestinian cause for Indian foreign policy. So India still officially maintains its support for Palestine and on paper calls for a two-state solution and so on. But in practice, its efforts have been broadening its ties with Israel in the last decade.

Shwetha: Especially over the last decade, Hindu nationalist ideology has taken centre stage in India with members of Modi's government and the wider RSS-led Hindutva ecosystem treating its Muslim minority population as subordinate. Many in Israel's current far-right government would also be supporters of the Hindutva worldview when it comes to Muslims. Could you tell us a bit more about this ideological convergence of Hindutva and Zionism?

Rohan: It's important to remember, of course, that while these two things are quite intertwined, what the Indian state chooses to do and what the ruling party's broad ideological support base does are slightly different things. And so India, particularly under Modi, has proven quite deft at mixing those two ideological and policy strains when they want to and keeping them apart when they want to.  And so just to give context to that, India's relationship with the UAE, which is a Muslim emirate, is as strong, much, much stronger, in fact, than its relationship with Israel. So there's a bit of space there for India to do things that are not necessarily reflective of underlying ideological underpinnings. 

The ties between the Hindutva right and the broader Zionist movement are, for the most part, ideological. They're not direct ties in that these people are not necessarily in communication directly with each other and supporting each other, in part because in the early years of the Zionist movement, or in the middle years of the Zionist movement, it was seen as very much allied with the imperial powers, or later the colonial powers at the time. And even the right-wing Hindutva writers and thinkers were still anti-imperial, anti-colonial in some form. But they had a lot more ideological convergence in their ideas of what a nation state ought to look like, particularly the ties between the idea of religion, of culture, of language, and the actual land on which the sacred geography in the term of the Indian Hindu right. And so, often, the Hindu right looked to Israel as a model for what they would like to build in India, which is when India emerged at Partition, when Pakistan was created broadly as a refuge for the Muslims of South Asia, the creator, the founding fathers, so to speak, and the folks thinking about what India should be in those early years, saw very clearly that they wanted to build a secular democratic republic, one that was not a Hindu state very clearly, and one that welcomed and gave equal status to citizens of all faiths. 

The Hindu right, however, saw in the state that Israel was starting to become, one where religion could be central to the state, where anyone who was not of that religion could be treated as subordinate to some extent. And so the convergence is explicit in the writing, as we mentioned in the essay. You have folks talking about the creation of Israel with admiration. And in the last 20-30 years, it's become even more so as we talk more about global ideas spreading and the idea of combating terrorism in the Indian right uses this as a cudgel against the broader Muslim populace, deliberately conflating specific terror actors with the entire Muslim minority in India and seeing Israel as a muscular version of what they would like to be, as a version that takes no qualms about treating the Muslim population as subordinate, with contempt, treating them all as potential terrorists and so on. You have human rights organisations like Amnesty describing what Israel does in the occupied territories as equivalent to apartheid, and that's not the case in India in treatments for when we're not talking about equivalent situations. But it certainly is the desire of many in the Hindu right. 

Shwetha: India's military and economic ties with Israel appear to have enough momentum to sustain this deepening relationship on their own, with India particularly interested in Israel's cyber and surveillance weapons, alongside the defence partnership, also the growing agricultural and economic ties with investments flowing both ways. Could you give us an overview of this?

Rohan: Yeah, the reason we say that, that the defense ties particularly have momentum on their own, is because it is partly to do with global politics, which is that India is a big arms importer, it's one of the biggest in the world, and in part because it doesn't have a sufficiently developed indigenous defense industry. And it has tremendous defense requirements, given that it faces both internal insurgencies as well as hostile neighbors, both on China and the Pakistani side. 

In the years of the Soviet Union, India built a very close relationship with the Soviets and sought to get a lot of its arms needs from the Soviets. But once the unipolar moment starts in the 90s, it has sought to diversify away from that dependence on the Soviets, which turns into dependence on the Russians. And as we know from India's complex response to the war on Ukraine, India is still heavily dependent on Russia and has to make subsequent foreign policy decisions based on that. And so India has sought about, cast about, looking for other potential allies, partners from which to draw defence equipment. And since it will not be looking to China for this, given that there's hostilities between the two, Israel has emerged as one of the natural sources of arms equipment technology and so on in the defense industry over the years, spreading now also to cyber weapons, to surveillance technology, and so on.

And so in part because of the complexities of global geopolitics, India needs Israel, and Israel, which has always seen foreign policy and the defense industry go hand in hand, needs India in a sense as a great client of its big defense industry. So even if there was no ideological convergence, the reason I say the momentum is sort of inbuilt is that even if there wasn't an ideological convergence between the two movements powering the states, the defense ties would have a natural momentum of their own. And so that exists, and that seems unlikely to change even in the event of different governments coming to power in either Israel or India that see their approaches to minorities and things like that change. You're likely to see the defense ties continue to grow and deepen. 

Economic ties have always been somewhat limited, in part because of India's older reluctance to work with Israel, in part because the companies were often seen as competitive in the past. But in the last 20 years, there's been a lot more sense that they can be complementary rather than competitive, particularly drawing from Israel's tremendous achievements in the agricultural space and Indian companies in the tech and services space and finding some sort of convergence between those two. And you now have large Israeli and Indian companies looking at each other as partners. Most prominently, as we mentioned, the Adani group, which has grown tremendously in the last 10 years under the Modi government, has bought a significant stake in a port in Haifa in Israel. And there's the sense that between that and the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor, which was announced on the sidelines of the G20, that the India-Israel relationship could grow a lot more economically, particularly in the fields of tech, of agri and foodpacking industries and so on, both being complementary and supplying Europe and other parts of the world. It's a complex one. I know we have limited time, so delving into some of these is not going to be easy. But yeah, it's clear that both sides now that the governments are clearly taking – not an ally, but a more partnership type approach, that there's space for the underlying companies and economies to also embrace each other.

Shwetha: Thank you. And there have been recent reports stating that the construction industry in Israel has asked the Indian government to allow companies to recruit 100,000 Indian workers to replace Palestinians since the war on Gaza began. Now, Sri Lanka has also recently forged an agreement with the Israeli government to allow the hiring of 10,000 Sri Lankans to work on farms. Nepal has also started preparations to send over a thousand workers selected through a lottery system for employment in Israel. Could you tell us about the implications of this for Southasia?

Rohan: Yeah, the story of this sort of labour migration to Israel is an important one because it speaks to how the country has developed over the last three or four decades, actually. It's in the aftermath of the second Intifada in the 1990s, after the Camp David Accords that Israel decides, you know, until then, Israel received a lot of labour from the occupied territories. You had Gazans and you had folks from the West Bank coming over into Israel to work on the fields, to do the sort of menial labour that a lot of Israelis are either not willing to do or they simply don't have enough, they have a shortage of labor in that sense. But this created the space for the spate of suicide bombings that Israel saw during the second Intifada. 

And as an active matter of policy, the Israelis cut themselves off from the source of labour and started looking a bit further afield for those sources. You know, and this is why you have Thai nationals being one of the largest sources of hostages in the Hamas attack because this is imported labour, so to speak, again, now with a complete shutoff of the limited number of Palestinians that were making their way through into Israel to work, Israel is again looking about to see where they can source labour from. And it's likely that in some countries, particularly in Thailand, for example, there might be reluctance now to go back to Israel, which is why they have had to look in other places and look to countries that both have what we might call a labour surplus, as well as better ties with the Israeli state and are seen as sort of non-ideological, not targets of either side, let's say, which may be why they are looking at Southasian states for this in the Indian case or in the Sri Lankan case. It's a bit more formal as it is in the Nepali case. In the Indian case, it remains a bit unclear. No one's confirmed things. We have unofficial sources talking about up to 50,000 Indians going, with over 100,000 being the request in other cases, such as in the construction industry and so on.

It's quite likely that the Indian government will not want to popularise just the sheer numbers until they come out in official records, in part with the aim of playing walking the tricky tightrope, which is that India, as much as the the Hindu right and the government aligned media, even in India, has displayed this wholesale alignment with Israel. Internationally, India wants to maintain  if not equidistance, at least be seen as still being sober in its relations with Israel, in part because there are millions of Indians in in Arab states, as well as if they work in Israel, India would not want them to become targets of any sort of hostility. And so we're likely to see that while these things will happen, because they make, to some extent, economic sense, we're unlikely to have them become lynchpins of any sort of relationship between these states, or at least I would be surprised if that were the case. At the same time, yeah, it's something that the Israelis would be happy to to see and to promote. So it will be curious to see how these governments, which all have different, you know, the Nepalese and the Sri Lankans, have very different approaches to Israel and the Palestinian cause to India in some ways. So it'll be interesting to see how they play going forward.

Shwetha: India's Supreme Court has upheld the 2019 decision by Prime Minister Modi's government to revoke the special status for India-administered Kashmir granted by Article 370. In the review essay, you discuss how the West Bank and Kashmir are ripe for comparison for the level of securitisation in both territories and for the impunity with which armed forces can operate in them. Could you tell us about India's approach to Kashmir and the comparisons to Palestine?

Rohan: Yeah, once upon a time, this was the most obvious comparison between the two countries, in part because of active efforts from Pakistan to and activists in Kashmir to make the comparison, to try and drive the Kashmiri issue to be a pan-Islamic one in the way that the Palestinian one eventually became. Now, there was no natural reason for Palestine necessarily to become a pan-Arab and eventually a pan-Islamic concern. And there was no reason for Kashmir not to be that. And yet the trajectories of the two differ for a variety of reasons that will be too long to get into at the moment. But there were comparisons drawn and sought to be drawn for many years. 

I almost feel like while the comparison is natural, it has become less pertinent in some cases over the years, and I'll explain why in terms of why there is an obvious comparison. It is in the way that the security states on both ends see a populace that is hostile to them in Kashmir that has meant rule by, you know, by army and other state elements that has over the decades. And this is not just the current government in India, but over decades has sought to securitise the space in such a way that there are minimal civil freedoms, in some cases, rig elections and make sure they are favourable to Delhi, in other cases, taking away civil rights altogether, as in 2019 when the autonomy was stripped away from the state, similarly, I mean, in a much more spelled out way in the Palestinian occupied territories, there is no sense of civil rights, any any attempt at protest, including peaceful protest, is often seen as an existential threat to Israel.

And so there are degrees of differences between the two. But from the point of the state, the surveillance and the idea of securitising the space, there are big similarities. The underlying politics are quite different in part because there is a general sense from the thrust within the Israeli space that the big question of whether it's a one-state or two-state solution that will ultimately come about, which is not necessarily the case, although there has been a long secession movement in Kashmir. This is not comparable to the question of the two-state solution in Palestine. And I would almost argue we didn't draw this out fully in the piece, that that comparison is getting a slightly less pertinent because we are seeing more what another activist called the Kashmirisation of all of India under the current government, it's not that the surveillance and security state is only trained on Kashmir or in other places that have insurgency. But the demonisation of minorities, the broadening of surveillance and the securitisation of public spaces are happening across the country and is no longer limited to just some of these spaces. So in some ways, I think now the comparison lies writ large against Hindutva and the Israeli state in general, rather than just taking it down to the question of Kashmir and the occupied territories in Palestine.

Shwetha: So how will India's growing ties with Israel impact its efforts to be seen as the voice of the global south? For example, New Delhi initially found itself alone in the South Asian region in abstaining on demands for a ceasefire at the UN General Assembly. Could India's growing ties with Tel Aviv and especially Netanyahu become another reason for domestic constituents in places like, say, Bangladesh or the Maldives to demand greater distance from India?

Rohan: It's one of the trickiest questions. And I wonder how the folks in the Indian foreign policy establishment are thinking about this. I live in Egypt. And from this vantage point, there are few people seeing India as very closely partnering with Israel in the sense that those of us who have followed India closely can sense that shift. I think it's not something that, aside from those who are paying attention to foreign policy, it's not seen as some major shift that's taken place, at least in the wider public. You're not seeing India allied with Israel in the way that when people get angry and protest against Israel, they speak of the US or France or Germany and so on. 

And so that I think is something that the Indian state and foreign policy establishment will guard against, in part because India, well, one for the simple reason that India has nine to ten million citizens living, particularly in Arab Gulf states. And that's an important constituency there, but also just generally to maintain its image amongst Arab states that are important partners and other Muslim states for their field. At the same time, the drift as it goes forward is likely to become more pronounced. And people might notice it more globally. The Global South remains a sort of nebulous concept with no clear idea of who speaks for whom. China and India have both sought to take the mantle of the countries that speak for the Global South, and China and India have found themselves on, if not opposite sides of this issue, China has been much clearer in its embrace of the Palestinian cause here, whereas India initially took that line which was closer to Israel and since then has moved towards voting for ceasefires.

I think it's going to be one of those tightropes that India is going to walk just as it attempted to do on the Ukraine issue, whether it matters for the Global South on this particular issue is one that's unclear. Although India took this position and has been seen by foreign policy watchers as being much closer to Israel on this issue, it has not really come in the way of India's ties with other Global South states or even its neighbourly states like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and so on took that line which was closer to Israel and since then has moved towards voting for cease-fires. It hasn't been used as a cudgel. 

There I think the place where it's most likely to come up would be Bangladesh but Bangladesh has its own democratic concerns at the moment and while India is often an aspect of internal politics there, at least for me I'm not too familiar with the internal policy of Bangladesh but it doesn't seem to have come up as an issue today. I think over years if the convergence becomes more obvious, if the embrace of India and Israel is more pronounced and visible, it's important to remember that there have been a lot of convergences between India and Israel that are invisible. Partnerships starting in the 80s and 90s between the intelligence organisations of both countries, between the defense and military establishments of both and then in political and even economic terms in the 90s and 2000s were deliberately kept relatively low profile for a variety of reasons. If these do become more visible I would imagine that there would be impacts, but at the moment it's almost too soon to say and there isn't a cost so to speak right off the bat to India from this. Maybe partly to do with the fact that its Arab partners, the UAE in particular and Saudi Arabia, are also trying to navigate a complex moment where they too actually are seeking closer ties with Israel and are hardly favourable to Hamas and are unsure how to play the Israel-Palestine issue. So I think this is an open question.  It's unclear and it will be a tightrope if India does want to make its Israel partnership more visible and vocal. 

Shwetha: Thank you Rohan for unpacking that for us and to wrap up the conversation, could you share any recommendations for further reading, watching or listening on India-Israel relations and Palestine? 

Rohan: Yeah, as I was working on this piece Azad Essa's book is very important and very useful. I think it lacks in a couple of spaces and particularly, you know, there's aspects where it would be useful for a more nuanced account of some bits of history but given the paucity of work on this matter, I mean, forget just India-Israel but India's ties with the modern Arab world, there's very limited particularly non-academic work on it. So Azad's book is one to pick up and read even if you want to be sceptical about certain bits of the account. 

There's two academic books that I mentioned in the piece that at least draw the broader contours of the India-Israel relationship. One would be Nicolas Blarel's The Evolution of India's Israel Policy and the other is JNU Professor P R Kumaraswamy's India's Israel Policy. Both of these are more academic works, they're not really for the lay reader but for those interested in the subject, they draw out this relationship and the twists and turns over the history really well but it really is an undercover subject and so I'll maybe draw folks to a couple of other things that given the current context that I'd be happy to recommend that are not specific to the India-Israel relationship but to this development in general. 

I've been quite taken by Ezra Klein's series of interviews on "The Ezra Klein Show" which is a podcast at the New York Times, interviewing folks on both the Israeli and Palestinian side on this issue and I think while there's a lot I might disagree with in many of those conversations, I think they're well done and will add insight to anyone who's on either side or on many of the multiple sides of this conversation. And two bits of slightly less current affairs he thinks, there's Adania Shibli's Minor Detail, it's a wonderful tiny little novella by a Palestinian author that's really a sharp, gives you a sharp sense of what this world is like, what this place is like in the early years particularly of Zionism. 

And because I live in Egypt at the moment, Lucette Legnado is an author who had to flee Egypt soon after Israel was created. She wrote a memoir called The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit which is broadly about her family, a Jewish Egyptian family having to flee Egypt, in part because of the consequences of the creation of Israel. And given that we are talking about refugees and what is happening in the world and what the consequences of the creation of the Israeli state has meant, I found it really an interesting read in this current moment. So yeah, those are my recommendations.

Shwetha: Rohan, thank you so much for the excellent recommendations and also for joining us today and for this opportunity to engage with questions on India-Israel relations and implications for Southasia. 

Rohan: Thanks so much. 

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