Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to India last month- only the second time an Israeli Prime Minister has come to the country. It followed Narendra Modi’s momentous July 2017 visit to Israel, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister. Domestic consensus now exists in New Delhi for strong ties with Israel to support India’s strategic interests. This was not always the case as India, fearful of antagonizing its internal Muslim minority and its Muslim-majority neighbors, has traditionally kept a discernible distance from Israel, not fully establishing diplomatic relations until 1992. This was coupled with India’s position during the Cold War atop the Non-Aligned movement, which historically championed the Palestinian cause, along with Third-World nationalist movements throughout the world. New Delhi and Tel Aviv now find themselves in an ever-closer embrace, though this burgeoning partnership is complicated by its potential to exacerbate India’s troubled relationship with its archrival and neighbor, Pakistan.
After independence, New Delhi positioned itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, viewing the issue through the prism of anti-Western imperialism and “Third- World nationalism.” The end of the Cold War forced a reappraisal in India’s policies towards the Middle East. This led to the aforementioned establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel in 1992. The relationship was further upgraded when Tel Aviv stepped in during the Indo-Pakistani Kargil War in 1999 to supply New Delhi with artillery shells, significantly escalating defense cooperation between the two nations over the following decade.
This nascent cooperation became more transparent when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 and has continued to grow over the subsequent years, while gradually gaining bipartisan support. Israel has supplied India with critical military equipment, including airborne early warning and control systems, drones, and border security solutions. India is now one of the largest customers for the Israeli defense industry, with an estimated $1 billion in annual defense deals, accounting for 7.2 percent of India’s arms. Diplomatically, Mr. Modi has pursued a “de-hyphenated” policy, effectively disconnecting Indo-Israeli relations from questions of Palestinian self determination and statehood.
Not surprisingly Pakistan is not thrilled to see the burgeoning of relations between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. Islamabad is particularly concerned about arms deals signed between the two countries, including the purchase of 8000 Spike anti-tank missiles and Barak 8 air defense systems. Furthermore, Islamabad has entwined its national identity with the championing of Muslim national aspirations throughout the world. This sense of victimhood has served Pakistan’s security establishment well, allowing it to justify its dominance in Pakistan’s polity and society. This narrative— which conflates Palestine and Kashmir, pan-Islamism with anti-Hinduism — has proved difficult to challenge, whether in seeking peace with India, demanding a stronger role for democracy, or dismantling militant networks. This worldview is in direct conflict with the ascendant pro-Israel Hindu right in India and may exacerbate the ongoing animosity between the two regional powers.
Pakistan might react to this shifting geostrategic reality by taking a card from the Palestinians and using the UN as a vehicle for applying pressure on India in Kashmir. Islamabad could also push its fellow Muslim-majority countries to help derail New Delhi’s ongoing efforts at attaining a permanent seat on the Security Council. Despite these tools at its disposal, Pakistan does not appear to have grasped that the geopolitical situation in the Middle East is rapidly evolving. The Arab Sunni governments now view Iranian expansionism as their primary threat, thus downgrading the relative importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in regional affairs. This changing strategic reality is likely to limit the the negative diplomatic effects for India of its relations with Israel. As of now, New Delhi maintains robust relations with the Sunni Arab powers and Tehran despite its ties with Tel Aviv. By trying to steer a pragmatic course and maintaining good relations with all players for its own economic, energy and security interests, India is increasing its diplomatic clout in the Muslim world, the very constituency Pakistan would like to consider its own. In doing so, it is pulling far ahead of its smaller, pricklier neighbor, further fueling Pakistan’s sense of victimhood.