The groundbreaking first visit to Israel by an Indian president Oct. 13 to 15 hardly featured in the global media, which were more focused on a potential third intifadah uprising, the growing U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria, and the Iranian parliament’s approval of Tehran’s nuclear deal with six global powers.
Nevertheless, President Pranab Mukherjee’s historic entry into Jerusalem from the Palestinian territories and his stirring speeches to underline New Delhi’s pro-Israel shift could have a more lasting impact on the Middle East as it adds India, together with China, to Israel’s increasing security, political and economic pivot toward Asia.
Mukherjee’s opening speech powerfully and unequivocally laid out India’s support for Israel as he condemned “the growing menace of terrorism and extremism” amid the outbreak of Palestinian stabbings of Israelis.
In the Knesset, he spoke of the two countries as “fellow democracies,” while remembering “with gratitude” that Israel had supported India’s claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and provided defence supplies to his country during a 1999 war with Pakistan. He said “persecuted Jews” who first sought refuge in his country more than 2,000 years ago “will always be an integral part of India’s composite society.”
Already Israel’s largest defence market, India will look to increase bilateral co-operation in security matters, technology and agriculture, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following a meeting with Mukherjee.
India’s pro-Israel shift has been pronounced since the May 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he shares the Jewish nation’s fear of radical Islam and a strong personal bond with Netanyahu, said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Tel Aviv-based Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA).
Modi’s Hindu-based BJP-led government has abstained in three major UN votes against Israel, reversing India’s past automatic support for the Arab world. To be sure, Mukherjee affirmed India’s traditional support for “a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with east Jerusalem as its capital” during his visit to the Palestinian territories. On Oct. 21, India also joined 25 countries in a UN motion to condemn “Israel’s aggression” on the Temple Mount.
Nevertheless, “there is a growing common strategic agenda between India and Israel,” said Inbar, who notes the Indian establishment has grown tired of backing Arab causes. He said that despite decades of loyally voting with the Arab nations against Israel, India has found itself at the receiving end of the Islamic world’s continued support for Pakistan.
Modi’s India has become less fearful of offending the Arab world, which is in political and economic meltdown because of worsening internal conflicts, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the collapse of oil and gas prices, Inbar said.
India is also encouraged by Sunni-led Saudi Arabia courting Israel to counter Iran’s Shia regime, which is emerging from isolation as it edges toward a nuclear deal with the P5+1 group .
Like China, an increasingly confident India is also deeply engaged with Iran, and this, ironically, could serve to bolster Israel’s security interest.
“Iran listens to India and China. The Iranians have a completely different relationship with India and China than they have with the West,” said Asia watcher Shalom Salomon Wald at the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).
Apart from their shared long history of cultural interactions and trade ties, “the Iranians can’t blame the Indians or the Chinese for anything that has gone wrong with their country,” Wald said in a phone interview.
But unlike Israel, India welcomes Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1 group, as it opens up the possibility of expanded trade and strategic ties between the two countries. Apart from a long-term role in developing one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, India is also staking out a position in Iran’s Chabahar deep-sea port facing the Indian Ocean, which has suffered from a lack of investment after years of trade and economic sanctions. The two countries recently signed an agreement to develop the port and support infrastructure to help India’s push to expand trade into Central Asia as well as compete against China.
Despite his belief in the growing positive influence of India and China in the Middle East, Wald is surprisingly pessimistic that the two Asian powers will deter Iran from its alleged plans to attack Israel.
“For the Islamic religious fanatics, the elimination of Israel is their raison d’être. It’s a very old tradition in Shia Islam to hate and persecute Jews,” Wald said. Inbar, who also opposes the Iran nuclear deal, shares Wald’s fears.
But India appears not to subscribe to the bleak assessment that Iran is planning to attack Israel, at least not for now. In separate interviews, two Indian scholars said Iran has more pressing issues to worry about, especially its worsening conflicts with Saudi Arabia.
“Iran has a lot of ‘catching up’ to do, having lost momentum owing to sanctions. Why would it undo the gains from the deal and the opportunity to recover by attacking Israel and inviting the return of sanctions?” said Rajesh Manohar Basrur, professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
With its growing stake in the Middle East, India has much to lose if Iran and Israel go to war against each other, said Meena Singh Roy, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“The Iranians are a pragmatic people. At the same time, India and other Asian countries today have a lot at stake in both Iran and Israel keeping the peace,” Roy said. While still dependent on the Middle East for their energy supplies, Asian countries are also increasingly vested in the region’s geopolitical stability amid the spread of radical Islam and ISIS, she said.
As with Mukherjee’s under-reported visit to Israel, Asia’s understated influence could be an unlikely new source of hope to limit conflicts in the Middle East.
Ng Weng Hoong is a Vancouver journalist who specializes in writing about energy issues in Asia and the Middle East.