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India’s embrace of Israel after Hamas attack reflects warmer relations

NEW DELHI — With war raging in Gaza, India’s embrace of Israel’s security concerns has underscored how dramatically the relationship between the two countries has developed since its chilly beginning.

For most of independent India’s history, New Delhi had no diplomatic relations with Israel. Just over 40 years ago, India even issued a postage stamp depicting the Indian and Palestinian flags flying side by side and the words “Solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Today, Indian and Israeli flags are displayed together at rallies demonstrating solidarity with Israel after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. The two countries have developed significant military ties. And their leaders, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu, share similar worldviews, including about the dominant role that their respective religions — Hinduism and Judaism — should play in their countries. Indian and Israeli media, using Netanyahu’s nickname, have dubbed their relationship the “Modi-Bibi bromance.”

Along with many Western leaders, Modi immediately condemned the Hamas attack and later reiterated that the “people of India stand firmly with Israel in this difficult hour.” This declaration reflects a wholesale change in New Delhi’s approach to the Middle East. India no longer keeps its friendship with Israel out of view and instead trumpets Israeli-style aspirations for muscular foreign and security policies.

The “public acknowledgment” shows India’s growing “fascination with the Israeli model,” said Nicolas Blarel, a Leiden University professor who studies India’s relations in the Middle East.

A year before Israel was established in 1948, Britain split its colony in the Indian subcontinent, creating India and Pakistan. At the time, Mohandas K. Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, were distraught over the decision to carve Pakistan out of British India as a separate Muslim country. They insisted that India be a secular country and balked at the Zionist movement’s campaign for the creation in the Middle East of another country based on a religion, Judaism.

India became, in the 1980s, the first non-Arab country to recognize Palestine as a state, responding in part to the concerns of India’s large Muslim population, according to former diplomats. When Israel finally secured long-elusive recognition by India in 1992, this was viewed as a “prize” that would usher in wider recognition in the Global South. India was the last major non-Arab, non-Islamic country to initiate diplomatic ties.

“The dispute used to be linked with ideas of decolonization, anti-imperialist,” said Navtej Sarna, who served as India’s ambassador to the United States and Israel. “But as India started looking more toward the West at the end of the Cold War, it started looking at Israel in a different way. … But we developed that relationship quietly.”

As India engaged in border conflicts with Pakistan and China, New Delhi became increasingly grateful for an Israeli supply of reliable weapons, as did its “technology fetishism,” said Blarel. “Clearly, there is an interest in what Mossad and other intelligence services from Israel have been able to do to protect their territory.”

Israel, meanwhile, found India to be a valuable customer for military and surveillance equipment. The United States had been concerned about Israel’s military relationship with China and pressured Israel to divert its military trade toward other countries, Blarel said. “The U.S. is very happy that India could step in,” he said. The military relationship ballooned, making India the top customer of weapons from Israel and a key co-producer.

“The fact is that India had struggled with how to approach the establishment of the state of Israel at its inception,” said Arun K. Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Israel and the United States. “But the partnership has built up. Through successive governments, the relationship has sustained that trajectory.”

After Modi became prime minister in 2014, he made public what had been discreet, said several former diplomats.

“Till Modi, the political establishment was a little more cautious. Now, it is more upfront in acknowledging the nature of the relationship,” said a former diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely on political affairs. Much of the change, the diplomat said, came about because the “leadership feels less pressure to the sentiments in the left sections of the polity and the Muslim community.”

In 2016, after Indian commandos carried out a raid inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in response to an attack by militants on an Indian army post, Modi trumpeted the action, saying: “Earlier, we used to hear of Israel having done something like this. But the country has seen that the Indian army is no less than anyone else.”

Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, in 2017 — he had previously traveled there when he was chief minister of Gujarat state — and made a stop at the grave of Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founding father. He also walked along the beach with Netanyahu as cameras snapped photos.

Since then, the economic relationship has continued to progress. At the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi in September, the leaders signed on to a new “economic corridor” linking India and Israel with railway, pipeline and data components. Meanwhile, a consortium led by a company run by Gautam Adani, one of India’s wealthiest business tycoons with close connections to Modi, purchased Israel’s Haifa port.

While India continues to support aid for Palestinian refugees, its United Nations vote in support of Palestinians is “no longer guaranteed,” said Blarel. He added, “India is now looking like an outlier in the Global South when it wants to be a spokesperson in calling out the double standards of the West.”

It is ironic, said Blarel, that early Hindu-nationalist thinkers in India drew upon Nazi ideology, while contemporary supporters of Hindu nationalism extol the Zionist blueprint, which calls for a state that is both religious and democratic. “It’s difficult to square,” he said.

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