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Nicolas Blarel’s The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922 is a magisterial survey and analysis of Indo-Israeli relations over a span of 70 years.

Blarel, Nicolas. The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. 428 pp.

India's relations with Israel have fast emerged, since the end of the Cold War, as among the most important for the South Asian nation. A vital source of arms and intelligence, Jerusalem has become Delhi's third-largest defence vendor within 25 years of establishing full diplomatic relations. Additionally, India relies on Israeli expertise in agriculture, and trade between the two countries, currently hovering around $5 billion, is expected to double as soon as a free trade agreement in the works in finalised.

Despite the strategic value of the Indo-Israeli relationship, it has somehow not been a popular subject of study among academics and policy analysts. Public understanding is mostly shaped by media reports that are, by their very nature, shallow and temporal. In these climes, Nicolas Blarel's The Evolution of India's Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922 is a much-needed survey and analysis of relations with one of Delhi's most-valued partners.

Although the partnership between the two almost-twin modern republics now appears to be a natural alliance, their history has been rocky, frustrating, and at times even antagonistic. Instead of beginning at the seemingly obvious chronological markers of Indian Independence and the creation of Israel, Blarel recounts his tale from the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 when Indian opinion on a Jewish state first began to form. It is commonly believed that Indian views on Israel were forged by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and they remained unchanged until Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations in 1992. Blarel challenges this notion on two counts – first, that Gandhi had such a profound influence on the foreign policy of Independent India, and second, that India's Israel policy was so inflexible. In fact, Blarel argues, Gandhi and Nehru showed an evolution in their thinking on Israel, as did the foreign policy of Independent India.

Gandhi's first impulse on the Jewish question was to oppose the partition of Palestine. This was informed more by the domestic politics in India at the time than any proper grappling with the issues plaguing the Jewish community. The late 19th century had seen a sudden surge in pan-Islamic sentiment among Indian Muslims and the British victory over the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and the subsequent uncertainty in the fate of the caliphate agitated them. In an effort to win over the Muslim community from the Muslim League and bring them into the fold of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi supported the All India Khilafat Committee in their protest against the British. The Indian nationalist movement thus exploited Muslim concerns over Palestine to forge a united front between Hindus and Muslims in India.

The Jewish Agency was keen on winning the support of Indian nationalists such as Gandhi and Nehru for they believed it would give a political boost to their aspirations. Furthermore, they had also noticed the impact of Indian Muslim sensibilities on British policies in the Middle East. David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann themselves met with and also sent other important Zionists such as Immanuel Olsvanger to meet with Indian leaders to try and convince them of the justness of Jewish demands in Judea. Gandhi was already somewhat aware of the plight of European Jews through his friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, Henry Polak, and others in South Africa yet the Jewish Agency could not win either Nehru or Gandhi over to their side. The reasons, again, were rooted in Indian domestic politics.

First, Gandhi did not wish to alienate Indian Muslims whom he perceived to be sympathetic towards the Arabs.

Second, the Indian leader did not accept the precepts of political Zionism. In a letter to Albert Einstein, Gandhi agreed that he could understand the spiritual desire of the Jewish people to return to Palestine but that did not give them any political rights. The Indian leader saw Zionism as a cultural phenomenon as Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg advocated, or a spiritual quest as Abraham Isaac Kook did, but not a political movement as Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl strategised. This was perhaps largely because Gandhi could not accept the argument for a confessional state in the Middle East and oppose a similar claim in India for Pakistan.

Finally, Gandhi could not come to terms with Zionist methods in pursuing their objectives on two counts – he could not condone the violence of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi and the Lohamei Herut Yisrael and he did not like how the Jewish Agency was willing to work with the British when they should have been opposing imperialism. Here, Gandhi did not seem to notice that Jewish support for Britain was largely for self-preservation from Arab mobs that had taken to attacking Jewish settlements with increasing frequency since the early 1920s.

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The cover of Nicolas Blarel’s The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922
The cover of Nicolas Blarel’s The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922

Germany's persecution of the Jews during the Second World War did not change Gandhi's views on a Jewish state. Though he condemned the atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people in Europe, he did not think they should dispossess others in Palestine for the faults of Europeans. However, perhaps due to the details of the Holocaust becoming widely known, Gandhi seems to have had a slight change of heart in 1946 that is not popularly known. In an interview with American journalist Louis Fischer, the Indian leader agreed that the Jews had a prior claim to the land in the Fertile Crescent but criticised their reliance on imperial powers to achieve their goals. In another interview that same year, Gandhi again agreed that the Jews had a case for a state but had squandered their goodwill and support by resorting to terrorist means.

As Blarel points out, Gandhi's views on Israel did evolve between Khilafat and independence but they did not have too much of an impact on Indian foreign policy. That honour was left to Nehru, whose views were not as similar to his mentor's as is commonly believed. In principle, Nehru was more supportive of Jewish political aspirations than Gandhi was; he accepted that their immigration into the region had substantially improved standards of living in Palestine and was impressed by Jewish achievements in science, the arts, business and politics. Like Gandhi, he rejected the religious basis for statehood but rather than define the question in religio-cultural terms, Nehru saw the Palestinian question as a nationalist one rather than a religious one. This gave the Jewish Agency a little more room to manoeuvre but maintained a firm position on the viability of Pakistan.

The Muslim League craftily leveraged the pan-Islamic sentiment of Indian Muslims to pin the Congress into an anti-Zionist corner. They would threaten the British with unrest and the Congress with a fractured nationalist struggle if either sided with the Zionists. This same dynamic carried on post Independence as Pakistan tried to build a Muslim coalition around it against India, particularly over Kashmir. In an effort to maintain consistency between its positions on Pakistan and Israel, appease the Muslim community in India, and counter Pakistani propaganda in the Middle East, India slowly slid into the anti-Zionist camp.

These philosophical contortions sometimes meant that India found itself on no one's side. During the debate in the United Nations over the mandate, India insisted on a single state in Palestine with two autonomous regions to the frustration of both Arab and Jew! Finally, when the creation of Israel was declared, India waited for two years to extend recognition. However, in an attempt to still be seen as neutral between the two sides, Nehru refused to establish full diplomatic relations with the new state. The Indian prime minister argued that the time was not ripe so soon after the dismemberment of Pakistan from India to vex Indian Muslims by sidling up to the Zionist state. Interestingly, this did not stop him from requesting Israeli assistance in technology and agriculture through the offices of Indian socialists who had maintained good relations with Israeli kibbutzim.

Despite requesting aid from Israel, Nehru and the Congress treated the Jewish state almost like their own untouchable. Israel was allowed to convert a pre-independence office of the Jewish Agency in Bombay (now Mumbai) into its consulate, though the consul was kept away from any official functions in Delhi. In fact, Delhi reprimanded Tel Aviv and even closed the consulate for six years from 1962-1968 for celebrating Israel's independence day in a hotel in Delhi. When Israeli president Zalman Shazar requested a halt in India for rest and refuelling on his way to Nepal in March 1966, the Indian government did not allow him to land in Delhi but in Calcutta (Kolkata). Shazar was not even given a five-minute courtesy reception at the airport by either the government of India or of West Bengal.

The Evolution of India's Israel Policy contends that Delhi was not locked in a Nehruvian mindset on Israel from 1947 until normalisation in 1992 but adapted its policies to suit the circumstances. Blarel argues that Indian policy always reflected realism and was not moralpolitik as some absurdly claim. India was dependent on the Suez Canal for trade and oil for its economy from the Arab world; the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967 hurt the Indian economy as the canal was closed for a time during which the cost of Indian exports to Europe and the New World rose between 15 and 35 per cent. India hoped that its support of the Palestinian cause would insulate it from economic shocks as well as gain reciprocal support from Arab states for the Indian position on Kashmir and isolate Pakistan in the process.

After Nehru, the evolution of India's Israel policy was towards greater inflexibility and stridency. As Blarel observes, several things had changed since the end of the Nehru era. Since 1967, Israel had shifted firmly into the American camp and introduced an imperial power into the region; the Palestinian situation became far bleaker after the Six-Day War. In 1975, India co-sponsored a resolution in the United Nations that equated Zionism with racism. In general, much like Indian non-alignment, its Israel policy was veering towards one side.

One major lacuna in The Evolution of India's Israel Policy is that it does not explain why Israel sought closer ties with India. The reason was obvious before 1948: association with Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence. In the first decade after creation, Israel believed that India's international influence as the leader of a bloc of newly independent Afro-Asian states would be helpful in gaining recognition from the global community. However, India's influence waned as its economy failed to grow commensurate to its population and it lost a war against China. In addition to the hostile treatment Israel received in the United Nations as well as bilaterally from India, why did Tel Aviv continue to seek close ties with Delhi?

In fact, Israel's efforts were commendable – Israel was among the first countries to provide military and medical assistance to India during the Sino-Indian War in 1962, supplying heavy mortars and ammunition. It provided artillery, ammunition, and instructors to India in 1965 during the Second India-Pakistan War, and during the War of Bangladeshi Liberation in 1971, Israel even helped India train the Mukti Bahini. Of course, Delhi did not acknowledge any of this, thanking Tel Aviv only for its medical aid. In 1968, when India established its intelligence service, Research & Analysis Wing, then prime minister Indira Gandhi reached out to Israel's HaMossad leModiʿin uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim – Mossad – to help train the fledgling service. While Indira Gandhi was whining about US PL 480 food aid being "ship to mouth" in 1966, she had simultaneously rejected Israeli offers of grains to assist India in staving off famine.

While India went to such great lengths to win Arab admiration, it found little to show for its efforts. Most Arab states remained neutral or favoured Pakistan in its wars with India, some even providing arms and ammunition and safe havens for the Pakistani Air Force from Indian bombardment. When India tried to gain membership to the Organisation of Islamic Countries on the basis of its substantial Muslim population, Pakistan was able to torpedo its application by threatening to walk out of the conference. In an effort to please the Arabs, India had even supported the Arabs in their decision to cut oil production and raise oil prices in 1973.

In the Middle East, India reserved all its moral admonitions for Israel alone. While it criticised Tel Aviv for siding with imperial powers, India did not utter a word of protest when Iraq, Iran, and Turkey joined the Central Treaty Organisation. Delhi's condemnation of terrorist methods applied only to the Zionists but not the Palestine Liberation Organisation. In fact, India recognised the PLO in 1975, 11 years after its formation and 17 years before it accorded the same status to Israel.

Blarel explains that India found it difficult to change its policy towards Israel not only for strategic and domestic electoral considerations but also because an orthodoxy had materialised in Indian politics and within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). While strong prime ministers like Nehru and Indira Gandhi could control the MEA, weaker leaders found it more difficult to do so. In that sense, it was a miracle that Rao managed to establish relations with Israel despite ruling over a weak coalition. The strain of recognition was evident from the fact that there was little movement in ties between the two countries for almost a decade thereafter.

The Evolution of India's Israel Policy is a veritable tour-de-force in an important field that has few scholars. Blarel has assiduously mined the archives, published records, and private collections in India, Israel, and at the United Nations, a task that deserves commendation for the difficulty in doing historical research in India. The result is a magisterial survey and analysis of Indo-Israeli relations over a span of 70 years. The Evolution of India's Israel Policy is also a wealth of information, containing many nuggets of interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive factoids. For anyone interested in Indian policies towards the Middle East and particularly Israel, this is an unavoidable book.