Why India has embraced Israel amid the Gaza war

Illustration - Analysis - India/Israel
6 min read
05 December, 2023

As BRICS held a virtual Extraordinary Joint Meeting in late November, the group informally agreed to condemn Israel's ongoing war in Gaza and expressed concern over the plight of civilians in the besieged enclave.

“We condemned any kind of individual or mass forcible transfer and deportation of Palestinians from their own land,” a statement read, chaired by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, although a joint declaration was not issued.

Yet reflecting the divisions within the group, founding member state India took a milder approach. Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar reiterated calls for a two-state solution but did not hold Israel accountable for Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza, which by that stage had reached 11,000, instead focusing on Hamas’ 7 October attack.

"India's growing proximity to Israel has been evident since establishing diplomatic relations in 1992, with the relationship intensifying under Narendra Modi's government"

India’s softened critique, while quietly deepening ties with both Israel and, more broadly, the United States, marks a divergence from fellow BRICS members - Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa - each of whom has separately denounced Israel's actions in Gaza. It also reflects a profound split within BRICS, often seen as a counterweight to Western global influence.

Moreover, on the sidelines of the COP28 climate change conference in Dubai, concerns over the violence in Gaza were raised by multiple leaders, officials, and delegates. Speaking to Israeli President Isaac Herzog, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly reiterated India's support for a two-state solution and a resolution to the Gaza war.

Ultimately, however, India's growing proximity to Israel has been evident since establishing diplomatic relations in 1992. This relationship has intensified under Narendra Modi's government, highlighted by Modi's historic visit in 2017, marking the first trip of an Indian Prime Minister to Israel.

Such actions signal a departure from India's long-standing policy of non-alignment among great powers, a stance maintained since its independence in 1947 and outlined as "actively neutral” by its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, which it devoutly followed throughout the Cold War while upholding a largely pro-Palestinian stance.

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Departing from non-alignment

In the post-Cold War era, India maintained a low profile in commenting on conflicts, including those in the Middle East. For instance, despite global criticism from the Global South towards the US-led Iraq war in 2003, India largely remained neutral as the invasion took place.

More recently, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, India fortified its commercial and diplomatic ties with Russia as it faced Western sanctions, thus becoming an increasingly significant ally for Moscow. Trade turnover between India and Russia more than doubled in the first half of 2022, with an increase of nearly 120%.

This paradox of balancing the West’s ties with Russia is perfectly illustrated by India's importing of Russian crude oil and subsequently selling it to Europe, despite Western sanctions on Russia. Yet apart from its dalliance with Moscow, which may even be plateauing, India is increasingly positioning itself within the US-led order.

Modi Netanyahu - AFP
Observers have drawn similarities between Israel's right-wing Likud Party and India's Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). [Getty]

On 7 October, soon after the violence erupted following Hamas’ attack on southern Israel, Modi wrote on X “we stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour” showing its clear solidarity with Israel, even before US President Joe Biden could express support for Israel. And as Israel has ramped up its attacks on Gaza, India has refrained from criticising Tel Aviv, while having previously condemned Hamas.

Although India has still sought to project a non-aligned image and one that is solely against violence (i.e. from Hamas), the government’s position has triggered criticisms from opposition figures that it is too supportive of Israel’s actions and its war in Gaza.

For example, Sonia Gandhi, parliamentary chairperson of the Indian National Congress party, accused Modi of “expressing complete solidarity” with Israel after the government abstained from a UN vote calling for a ceasefire in late October.

"India's foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly with Israel, aligns with its wider strategic goals within US-led frameworks"

While India said it abstained as the resolution didn’t condemn Hamas, India has also tried to outlaw pro-Palestinian protests, akin to some Western European countries which had unequivocally supported Israel as the war broke out.

While this move has repressed protests in most parts of India, it’s particularly targeted the India-controlled Kashmir province, which it unilaterally declared as part of its territory in 2019. For New Delhi, this could be a way of curtailing resistance from within that region.

Indeed, one key opposition leader and Muslim cleric, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, said he has been put under house arrest each Friday since the start of the war and that Friday prayers have been disallowed at the biggest mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city.

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India's interests in the Middle East

India's backing of Israel can be largely attributed to realpolitik considerations. Israel is India’s biggest supplier of weapons, which includes drones, radars, and missile systems. The two countries have also collaborated on joint defence research and development projects in other sectors like technology and innovation.

Indeed, while security and defence cooperation underpins their cooperation, commercial ties have advanced, particularly with Indian software companies’ growing presence in Israel. And despite some disagreements over specifics, like the amount of Indians that can work in Israel, there have been negotiations over a free-trade agreement (FTA).

Yet observers have also drawn similarities between Israel’s right-wing Likud Party and India’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly exemplified by the apparent closeness between Benjamin Netanyahu and Modi.

Israel enjoys much support within India, particularly among BJP supporters. [Getty]

More broadly, India's foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly with Israel, aligns with its wider strategic goals within US-led frameworks. This is underscored by India's key role in the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) agreement, which, although still in the nascent stages, signals a strengthening of ties with Western alliances. This economic corridor, proposed in September, also aims to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The IMEC’s progress has been delayed due to the war, and the risks of a wider regional conflict have further threatened its fruition. For this reason, India will continue hoping for a quick resolution to the war, although favouring its ties with Israel.

India's participation in the Quad since 2017, a security initiative led by the US in the Indo-Pacific, further indicates its inclination towards such alliances, particularly amid concerns over China.

"Israel is India's biggest supplier of weapons, which includes drones, radars, and missile systems"

While Israel enjoys much support within India, particularly among BJP supporters, Modi still contends with a large proportion of the population being supportive of Palestine. The southern Indian state of Kerala is another region that has seen mass rallies in support of Gaza and against Israel.

“India is the biggest consumer of weapons manufactured in Israel. Indian taxpayers’ money should not be given to kill innocent Palestinian children. So India should scrap all military deals with Israel and sever diplomatic ties with it,” Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said at a rally in November.

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To balance out this pressure over its support for Israel, India has made some aid deliveries to Gaza, mostly through contributions to UNRWA. We could expect to see Modi reiterate calls for a two-state solution and an end to the war, particularly as global criticism over Israel’s campaign and its humanitarian consequences will certainly intensify.

Ultimately, despite contending with some pro-Palestine views from its populace and seeking to avoid reputational damage in the global south over its support for Israel, India has opted to maximise its position within the US-led order while prioritising cooperation with Israel.

As India strives to establish its economic and political influence globally as an emerging power, prioritising relationships with the US and Israel is a strategic choice it is currently pursuing.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey