The recent violent attack by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, on Israel and the subsequent declaration of war by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have implications for India’s trade and diplomatic relations with the region. However, the extent of these effects will be determined by the duration of the ongoing escalation, according to experts.
According to experts, India’s trade with Israel, which amounted to approximately $10.7 billion in FY23, could face significant challenges if the operations at Israel’s three major ports – Haifa, Ashdod, and Eilat – are disrupted. These ports play a crucial role in handling shipments of agricultural products, chemicals, electronics, machinery, and vehicles. Notably, a significant portion of India’s merchandise trade with Israel relies on the Eilat port, situated on the Red Sea. Fortunately, as of now, there have been no reports of port disruptions. The actual impact on India’s trade will be contingent on the duration and severity of the ongoing conflict.
Since the multi-front attack launched by the Hamas group on Israel last Saturday, reports indicate that approximately 1,000 people have lost their lives. The casualties are estimated to be over 600 on the Israeli side and around 370 in Gaza.
In response to the escalating situation, India is actively working to repatriate its stranded students from Israel. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is closely monitoring the developments, as stated by Union Minister of State for External Affairs, Meenakshi Lekhi, during a press briefing on Sunday. Indian nationals in Israel have been advised by the Indian Embassy to exercise vigilance and adhere to safety protocols.
The intensifying conflict between Israel and Hamas not only threatens India’s trade with Israel, particularly in critical areas such as defence equipment, but it also presents a substantial challenge to India’s diplomatic efforts, particularly if other Arab countries become involved in the conflict.
In the event that the conflict in the Middle East escalates and draws in more Arab countries, as has happened in the past, India will need to approach the situation with caution. India’s economic and strategic connections with the Middle East have gained significant importance, particularly in the context of the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor. Therefore, in the face of an intensifying war, India will need to carefully navigate its actions.
While a direct conflict between Hamas and Israel may not have a direct impact on India, the involvement of other actors like Hezbollah and Iran could severely disrupt the security and stability of the West Asian region. This, in turn, would have direct consequences for India, affecting its energy supply, economy, investments, and the welfare of Indian expatriates living in the region. Thus, India’s interests and well-being are closely tied to the developments in the Middle East.
Trade & Ties
Trade relations between India and Israel have seen a steady increase over the years, with a notable spike in 2022 when Israel became India’s fourth-largest destination for petroleum product exports, and it reached the top spot in November 2022.
During the 2022-23 fiscal year, India’s exports of petroleum products to Israel surged, increasing by 3.5 times to reach $5.5 billion, compared to $1.6 billion in the previous year. This surge in petroleum exports boosted India’s overall exports by 77% and expanded the total trade between the two countries by 37%. However, it’s important to note that the surge in petroleum exports hasn’t been sustained in the 2023-24 fiscal year so far.
The trade ties between India and Israel initially gained momentum in 1992 when diplomatic relations were established. At that time, the trade was primarily focused on precious metals such as diamonds. Since then, both countries have diversified their trade portfolio, encompassing various sectors, including engineering goods, electronics, fertilisers, textiles, agricultural products, petroleum products, and pearls, as well as precious and semi-precious stones.
Israel holds a significant and strategic position in India’s defence imports, standing as the third-largest exporter of defence equipment to India, following Russia and France. It is essential to note that the data mentioned earlier, which does not include defence trade, underscores the substantial role that Israel plays in India’s defence procurement landscape.
In the year 2022, Israel’s contribution to India’s defence imports was particularly noteworthy, constituting more than 8% of India’s total defence imports. This percentage demonstrates the considerable reliance that India places on Israeli defence technology and equipment to meet its multifaceted security and military requirements.
The India-Israel defence partnership has evolved and strengthened over the years, characterised by the exchange of cutting-edge military technology, advanced weaponry, and valuable expertise. Israel is renowned for its high-quality defence systems, including missile defence systems, sophisticated surveillance technology, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cybersecurity solutions, and more. These collaborations not only enhance India’s defence capabilities but also contribute significantly to the diplomatic and strategic relations between the two nations.
India’s preference for Israeli defence technology is rooted in the proven reliability and effectiveness of Israeli systems, which have consistently performed well in various operational environments. As India faces growing geopolitical and security challenges in the region, the partnership with Israel becomes increasingly vital to bolster its defence capabilities and meet evolving threats.
This robust defence partnership reflects the growing importance of Israel in India’s defence procurement strategy. It highlights the deepening and multifaceted defence ties between India and Israel, which extend beyond mere trade to encompass collaborative research and development, joint military exercises, and technology transfer, strengthening the overall defence ecosystem of both nations. The synergy between India and Israel in the realm of defence is poised to continue growing in the coming years.
Israel – India: Back in Time
As per reports in open sources, the excavations at Tel Megiddo have unearthed compelling evidence of Indo-Mediterranean trade relations dating back to the mid-second millennium BCE, linking South Asia and the southern Levant. These excavations reveal the presence of several items, including turmeric, bananas, and sesame seeds, all of which have their origins in South Asia. This evidence sheds light on historical trade and cultural exchanges between the two regions. The geographical analysis of Israel even suggests that some references in the Old Testament may pertain to India, given the presence of trade items like animals, including monkeys and peacocks.
Chaim Menachem Rabin, a noted scholar, has documented connections between ancient Israel and the Indian subcontinent during the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BCE, as mentioned in I Kings 10.22.
Historical records and accounts also document ancient trade and cultural interactions between India and the Levant. The “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” an ancient Greek text, provides insights into trade routes and commerce in the region, and the Hebrew Bible contains accounts related to the Queen of Sheba, suggesting connections between these regions.
The Cochin Jews, who have settled in Kochi, Kerala, trace their origins back to the time of King Solomon. They are known as Cochin Jews and have a rich history of trade and cultural exchange. Additionally, during the 15th and 16th centuries, Paradesi Jews migrated to Kochi, Kerala, following their expulsion from Spain. This migration further solidified the historical ties and cultural exchanges between India and the Levant, particularly among Jewish communities.
The trade relations of both the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East can indeed be traced back to ancient times, extending to 1,000 BCE and even earlier. These relationships have deep historical roots, dating to the era of the Indus Valley Civilization in South Asia and the Babylonian culture in the Middle East.
An interesting facet of this historical trade is recounted in Buddhist stories, which describe Indian merchants venturing to Baveru, believed to be Babylonia, and selling exotic items like peacocks for public display. Earlier accounts also mention the trade of monkeys. These accounts highlight the historical connections and commercial interactions between India, Palestine, and Mediterranean Jewish communities.
Reports and experts suggest that during the non-recognition period from 1948 to 1950, India’s stance on the establishment of the State of Israel was influenced by various factors, including its own recent partition on religious lines and its international relationships. Mahatma Gandhi, a prominent leader in India’s struggle for independence, held a complex view on the matter. While he acknowledged the historical connection of the Jews to Israel, he was against the creation of Israel based on religious or mandated terms. Gandhi believed that the Arabs were the rightful inhabitants of Palestine and suggested that Jews should return to their countries of origin.
In an attempt to garner support for the establishment of a Jewish state, Albert Einstein wrote a four-page letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, on June 13, 1947. Einstein urged India to back the formation of a Jewish state. However, Nehru could not accede to Einstein’s request, citing the practical necessity for national leaders to pursue policies that were, regrettably, self-serving.
During this period, India took a stance against the Partitioning of Palestine plan in 1947, voting against it. Additionally, India voted against Israel’s admission to the United Nations in 1949. This reflected India’s foreign policy choices and the complex dynamics surrounding the establishment of Israel, as it navigated its own post-independence challenges and relationships with various nations.
Indeed, there were proponents of Hindu nationalism in India who expressed support or sympathy for the creation of Israel. These leaders and organisations had various reasons for their positions:
- 1. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a prominent figure in the Hindu Mahasabha, advocated for the establishment of Israel based on both moral and political justifications. He criticised India’s vote against Israel at the United Nations and believed that the Jewish people had a legitimate claim to the land of Israel.
- 2. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, a leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), admired Jewish nationalism and saw the territory of Palestine as the natural homeland for the Jewish people. He viewed this as a fundamental aspect of their national aspirations.
These expressions of support for Israel from within the Hindu nationalist movement reflected a complex mix of ideological, geopolitical, and moral considerations. It’s important to note that these views did not represent the official position of the Indian government, which had, as mentioned previously, voted against the establishment of Israel and its admission to the United Nations during the early years of its existence.
Records indicate that India formally recognized Israel on September 17, 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister at the time, stated that they would have recognized Israel earlier but refrained from doing so to avoid offending Arab nations.
However, the relationship remained informal until the early 1990s. During the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, Israel supported India. India’s reluctance to establish official diplomatic ties with Israel was driven by concerns over both domestic and foreign factors. Politicians in India were apprehensive about potential political repercussions, particularly the loss of support from the Muslim community if they normalised relations with Israel.
Several factors contributed to India’s reluctance to formalise relations with Israel. Firstly, India was concerned about the significant number of its citizens working in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf. Maintaining good relations with these countries was essential to preserve India’s foreign-exchange reserves.
Secondly, India’s dependency on energy resources, especially oil, from Arab nations was a crucial consideration. Ensuring a steady flow of oil was a priority for India’s energy needs.
Thirdly, India’s foreign policy goals and alliances posed challenges to formalising relations with Israel. This included India’s support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, its alignment with the Non-Aligned Movement, its close ties with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and its efforts to counter Pakistan’s influence with Arab states.
Furthermore, at an ideological level, the dominant political party in India during this period, the Indian National Congress, opposed Israel due to the perception that it was a state based on religion, similar to Pakistan.
Despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, there were interactions and cooperation between both countries. High-level figures, such as Moshe Dayan, engaged in meetings and exchanges. Israel also provided India with valuable information during various conflicts and wars.
1992 – Present Scenarios
During the heightened tension between Israel and Hamas in July 2014, India expressed a condemnation that held both sides responsible for the violence. India called on Israel to halt what it deemed a “disproportionate use of force” in Gaza. This stance was seen by some as a shift from India’s more vocal support for the Palestinian cause.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj emphasised that there was no change in India’s policy towards Palestine, reaffirming that India fully supported the Palestinian cause while maintaining friendly relations with Israel. This stance has been consistent across Indian governments for the past two decades since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1992.
Swaraj, a seasoned parliamentarian, resisted opposition demands in the Rajya Sabha to pass a resolution condemning Israel for the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. She explained that India’s friendly relations with both Israel and Palestine meant that taking sides could negatively impact these friendships. However, India later joined other BRICS nations in voting at the United Nations Human Rights Council for an investigation into alleged human rights violations in Gaza. When the UNHRC report accused Israel of war crimes and came up for a vote, India abstained, along with four other countries, while 41 nations voted in favour. The United States was the only one to vote against. Israeli envoy to India, Daniel Carmon, appreciated India’s stance, describing it as not supporting what he deemed “another anti-Israel bashing resolution.”
In a significant move, on June 6, 2019, India voted in favour of Israel’s resolution to deny observer status to the Palestinian non-governmental organisation Shahed at the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Fast-forward to August 2022, President Isaac Herzog took part in the Indian Embassy’s 75th Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv. In his address, he warmly welcomed India’s emergence as a regional and global power. Herzog characterised Israel and India as “two modern republics proudly linked by creativity and democracy, driven by innovation while respecting timeless faiths and belief systems.”
During a meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, President Herzog emphasised his personal commitment to enhancing the India-Israel relationship, highlighting the importance of this growing partnership.
The Bottom Line
The historical journey of India’s relationship with Israel has been a complex and nuanced one, shaped by domestic, international, and ideological factors. From the early days of non-recognition to the eventual establishment of formal diplomatic ties, India’s stance on Israel has evolved significantly. However, the essence of India’s policy remains one of balance — maintaining support for the Palestinian cause while fostering relations with Israel.
In light of the recent Israel-Palestine conflict and the broader dynamics of the Middle East, India’s stance continues to be closely watched. The delicate equilibrium India maintains in navigating its relationships with Israel and the Arab world reflects its foreign policy pragmatism. It’s a testament to India’s commitment to its own interests while contributing to regional stability.
As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, and new challenges arise, India’s relationship with Israel remains a fascinating case study in diplomacy, balancing principles and pragmatism. The current Israel-Palestine conflict underscores the intricacies of these dynamics, reminding us that the pursuit of peace and stability in the region is a complex and ongoing endeavour.