Narendra Modi landed in Israel in the summer of 2017. His visit to the Jewish state, the first by an Indian prime minister, was historic. India, after all, was once considered, in the words of Bernard Weinraub, ‘the loneliest post in the world' for Israeli diplomats. But by the 21st century, India had become Israel's closest eastern partner and its largest arms market.
What precipitated this dramatic shift?
Having voted against the creation of Israel at the UN in 1947, India desisted from establishing full diplomatic relations with West Jerusalem until 1992. For decades, Israel's presence in India was limited to an immigration office in Mumbai. In between, India voted with the majority to pass UN Resolution 3379, condemning Zionism as a form of racism, became one of the first non-Arab states to recognize Palestine's declaration of independence in 1988, and was generally among the more vocal non-Arab voices against Israel.
Since 2001, however, the diasporas of the two countries have emerged as energetic allies against a shared enemy: Islamic extremism. A survey by the Israeli foreign ministry in 2009 found India to be the most pro-Israel country in the world, well above the US. Once a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment, India appeared at the bottom in a worldwide poll in 2011 of countries sympathetic to Palestinian statehood.
Israel had all along been a quiet friend to Delhi, volunteering clandestine support as India sought to repel attacks by China (in 1962) and Pakistan (in 1965). Israeli officials knew also that India, which had no traditions of anti-Semitism, had arrived at its Israel policy through a combination of post-colonial hauteur, realpolitik —particularly its desire to placate Arab Muslim opinion in its contest against Islamic Pakistan — and an ethical commitment to the Palestinian cause. Partly for these reasons, India's anti-Israel sloganeering rarely provoked any anxiety in West Jerusalem.
A triad of reasons account for the revision of India's attitude towards Israel. The first is the belated realization that no amount of deference to Arab sentiment could alter Muslim opinion in West Asia in India's favor: when it came to Kashmir, Shia and Sunni united in supporting Pakistan's position.
The second was the collapse of the old world order: the demise of the Soviet Union meant that India had to forge new partnerships.