A disastrous friendship: The dangerous political economy of India’s support for Israel
First published at Liberation.
On 21 November 2023, the BRICS-Plus grouping, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and six newly inducted countries — Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — held an “Extraordinary Joint Meeting” on the Palestine situation. In the meeting, Brazil, South Africa, China and Russia unambiguously declared that Israel must be held accountable for the ongoing conflict and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. So did the newly inducted countries. The chair of the meeting, South Africa, accused Israel of war crimes and “genocide”. Despite the overwhelming Western imperialist backing for Israel, and only muted protests from the Arab countries, global protests had steadily turned the tide of popular opinion against Israel, forcing many governments particularly those in the Global South to speak out against the genocide.
The powerful pro-Palestine sentiment within BRICS-Plus however left one country isolated: India, the self-styled voice of the Global South, and a one-time committed ally of the Palestinian liberation struggle. The Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar declared that there was “a need for restraint and immediate humanitarian support”, as well as “peaceful resolution through dialogue and diplomacy”, but stopped short of holding Israel accountable or calling Israel’s actions war crimes or genocide. A few days earlier, on 27 October, India had even abstained in a United Nations (UN) General Assembly vote on a resolution drafted by 22 Arab countries that called for an immediate humanitarian truce.
Though the Arab countries had made their peace with Israel over the years, the brutal attack on Palestine was clearly beyond their threshold of acceptance. And India’s economic connection with the Arab world is too deep to completely ignore its sentiments. The total bilateral trade between India and Arab countries amounted to $177.5b in the financial year 2020-21. This is a much larger volume compared to the Indo-Israeli trade which stood at $10.02b in the financial year 2022-23. The Arab region is also a source of remittance inflows to India and provides employment to millions of Indian citizens. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are integral to the newly launched connectivity project which seeks to connect India to Europe through West Asia. Hence, soon after the UN abstention on 27 October, India was mindful enough to cast a tokenistic vote in favor of a UN resolution against Israeli settlement activities in Palestine.
Tokenisms aside, India deep friendship with Israel has been evident during the ongoing Israeli genocide of Palestinians. Its strong pro-Israeli stance in international forums has found its domestic counterpart in the heavy policing of pro-Palestine voices at home. This unfortunate friendship has been in the making since the early 1990s. India’s thrust towards neo-liberal globalization coincided with the recognition of Israel by the Arab world and, most importantly, by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). These developments were coterminous with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a militant movement for freedom in Kashmir. India’s love affair with Israel was a product of those times and has only intensified since then.
Having defined the “Kashmir problem” as one of “Islamic terrorism” rather than of suppressed national aspirations, much like the way Israel had defined the question of Palestine, India saw in Israel a country that dealt with similar security problems and could be a useful partner in the defense sector. The partnership fit well with liberalizing and globalizing India’s desire to align with the United States economically and politically in the post-Cold War world. The subsequent intensification of neoliberal policies in India and the ascendancy of Hindutva which identified “Islamic terrorism” as one of India’s key national challenges, steadily cemented the Indo-Israeli alliance. Indian voices desiring to hold Israel accountable have stressed India’s non-aligned and anti-colonial traditions and invoked humanitarian and pacifist principles. The government and its acolytes have countered these viewpoints by emphasizing on the Indo-Israeli business and defense partnerships. A close look at these partnerships reveals how intimately connected these are to the remaking of India as a majoritarian, authoritarian, and corporate state.
Partnering and emulating Israel
Diplomatic ties were established between the two countries in 1992. India’s economic exchanges with Israel have increased by leaps and bounds since then. Indian exports, made up of cotton, handicrafts, and manmade yarn, amounted to $90m in 1992-93 and $130m in 1993-94. Imports from Israel, made up of fertilizers, pearls, semi-precious stones, machinery, and the like, were worth $140m in 1992-3 and $300m in 1993-4. But by the new millennium, bilateral trade hovered around $1.5bn. By 2008-9 it had grown to $3.5bn and to $6.6bn by 2011-12. In 2014, trade was worth $4.52bn, driven in large part by the upsurge in arms sales.
Defense has indeed been the bedrock of the economic partnership. Following the birth of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, Israel invested heavily in its defense sector. Between 1966–72, the local defense industry created 20,000 new jobs, and purchases from local industries increased by 86%. The arms industry became a driver of economic wealth, with the ability to wield influence and policy. Azad Essa, journalist and author of Hostile Homelands — a landmark book on the political economy of the Indo-Israeli friendship — points out that this phase of expansion of the defense sector also sowed the seeds for the privatization of Israeli security. This precipitated the creation of a revolving door for ex-military officers who move between the army and private arms manufacturers, and who help reinforce the Israeli economy’s dependence on the military industrial complex to survive and thrive.
India became an integral part of the Israeli military industrial complex in the 1990s. Between 1997–2000, 15% of Israel’s exports made their way to India. Over the next five years, weapon deliveries ballooned to 27%. In 2006, Israel’s arms exports were worth $4.2bn of which India accounted for $1.5bn worth of imports on its own. Between 2003 and 2013, India became the single largest purchaser of Israeli arms, accounting for upwards of one-third of all arms exported out of the Zionist state.
Israel exports not only military equipment but also military expertise. By the early 1970s, Israel had already built up “technical programs” across parts of Africa and South America including para-military training in African countries as well as in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. It sent military advisors to dictators like Zaire’s leader Mobuto Sese Seko (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Uganda’s Idi Amin (until the relationship soured in 1972). Those governments that accepted Israeli military and police training programs subsequently looked towards Israel when they had to shop for weapons. Essa writes, “Israeli weapon manufacturers promoted Israel’s ascent as a ‘sub-imperialist’ power — one that penetrated the markets of Third World nations while remaining heavily dependent upon American and European capital.”
Since the days of the Vajpayee government (1998-2004), India has increasingly used Israeli expertise to build a surveillance state. The use of Pegasus software to target democratic activists is merely a tip of the iceberg. Indian authorities began working with the Israeli company Nice Systems following the attacks on India’s parliament in 2001. Nice Systems had already built up a reputation for handling surveillance at the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, as well as at several high-profile airports around the world. After the attacks of 26/11 in Mumbai, the Indian government authorized, with the help of Nice Systems, the implementation of a Central Monitoring System (CMS) that would have the ability and capacity to intercept phone calls and text messages.
In 2010, Indian authorities began deploying Israeli drones to search for Adivasi alleged Maoist guerrillas in the forests of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Indian armed forces were already using Israeli-made Tavor and Galil rifles since 2009 against Adivasis in these states. Indo-Israeli defense exchanges picked up pace following the ascendancy of Narendra Modi in 2014. That year, the Punjab Police traveled to Israel for training on “security and anti-terror operations.” A year later, the Indian Police Service (IPS) began an annual program in which recent graduates would spend one week studying “best practices in counterinsurgency, managing low intensity warfare and use of technology in policing and countering terror” with the Israel National Police Academy. In 2015, the Indian government began the implementation of a “smart border” along the Line of Control through Israeli assistance.
Under the Prime Ministership of Narendra Modi, India has in fact emulated a whole range of Israeli domestic policies. Discriminatory citizenship laws, attempts to track and manipulate the Hindu-Muslim population ratio, bulldozer justice, all have illustrious precedents in Israel, as outlined in detail in an Amnesty International Report published in 2022. In whose interest are these policies being adopted? The all-engulfing stench of lynched bodies, dust from bulldozed homes, and sighs of imprisoned dissenters suggest some answers. The worst instance of the Israeli security template comes from Kashmir; whose political autonomy has been annihilated — much like Gaza. Kashmir is being held at gunpoint, its children have been ravaged with pellet guns, its voices have been stifled, while the Home Minister is busy giving himself plaudits for “resolving” the Kashmir problem. Might the government of India adopt the Gaza genocide template in Kashmir as well, if the Kashmiri people were to rebel against the government’s false solutions?
Indian corporates and the military industrial complex
The Modi government, right from its inception, was keen to create fresh institutional spaces to further India’s economic integration with Western markets and to gain political legitimacy. The government’s efforts bore fruit in 2022, with the launch of the “I2U2” grouping (India, Israel, the United States, and UAE) or the “West Asia Quad”: an opportunistic alliance of countries to further the “national interests” of each. The Abraham Accords, initiated by the US to further its imperialist interest in the region at the expense of Palestine, prepared the ground for the I2U2’s emergence. On August 13, 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump — a racist authoritarian populist in the image of Modi and Netanyahu — announced that the governments of the UAE and Israel had agreed to the full normalization of relations and also to initiate a new era of bilateral agreements that would transform the region.
With the Abraham Accords, the UAE became the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, to sign normalization agreements with the Zionist state. In September and December, Bahrain and Morocco followed suit. The fate of Palestine was not even discussed during this process. The accords carried several consequences. First, they consolidated and normalized the Israeli occupation and apartheid system, signaling a departure from a long-held consensus in the Arab world that normalizing ties with Israel would only arrive after a just settlement to the conflict. The accords also expanded the market for Israeli hi-tech and U.S. military technology and weapons systems in West Asia.
India welcomed the tripartite Accords and became the fourth country in the Quad. India’s importance to the US lies in its large market, cheap labor, and its geo-political ambitions vis-à-vis China’s economic clout. As for India, besides cementing valuable alliances against China, the I2U2 gave it a necessary ecosystem to facilitate its economic plans. It granted India easier access to the US and UAE’s capital and to Israel’s expertise — all of which are key ingredients of Modi’s flagship Make in India, Skill India, and other associated projects. I2U2 has also given the Modi government a chance to gain legitimacy in the Arab world.
Unsurprisingly, the I2U2, and Israel in particular, has become a vessel through which Indian corporations have launched themselves in the West Asian region. Within hours of its launch, it was reported that Haifa Port had been sold to the Indian company Adani Ports, operating on a joint-bid with Israeli company Gadot. Within days, the Indian flag was hoisted alongside the Israeli flag above the port. Besides the takeover of the Port of Haifa — Israel’s second largest port — the Adani Group also vowed to transform the skyline of the Mediterranean city as part of its decision to invest more in the country, including opening an artificial intelligence lab in Tel Aviv. Adani is merely one of the many corporations that have quickly developed a stake in defending Israeli apartheid for its own profit-motive.
The Ambani group has of course not been left behind. In anticipation of the Quad, Reliance Defense Ltd, a unit of Reliance Infrastructure Ltd (R-Infra), and Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd agreed to set up a joint venture (JV) in the specialized areas of air-to-air missiles, air defense systems and large aerostats, in 2016. The strategic tie-up with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, a world leader in defense technologies, marks the entry of Reliance Defense in the field of air-to-air and air defense systems manufacturing in India. Reliance Defense owns 51% in the joint venture and the rest is held by Rafael. Reliance has been entering into other JVs with Israeli firms as well. In June 2017, Reliance invested 20% in an “innovation technology incubator” partially owned by OurCrowd (60%), a crowdfunding platform in Jerusalem, and Motorola Solutions (20%).
Nuvama Institutional Equities — a leading domestic Indian brokerage house — in its latest report, noted that several Indian companies have tie-ups with Israel including Kalyani Rafael Advanced Systems (JV of Bharat Forge and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems), Adani-Elbit JV, DCX Systems Ltd, L&T, HBL Power Systems Ltd, Tech Mahindra Ltd, Astra Microwave Ltd and Tata Advanced Systems. The report also mentioned that any escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict may create opportunities for Indian players such as Bharat Forge Ltd, Larsen & Toubro Ltd (L&T), Tata Advanced Systems and Adani Group in the near-to-medium term, as Israel is likely to reach out to its allies such as India to ensure ample stockpiles for the war.
Threats to democracy, sovereignty, peace and unity
Corporate investments through the I2U2 do not serve the Indian people’s interests one bit. The current government has consistently promoted corporate interests as national interests and in the process further entrenched caste-class-gender inequalities in India. It has reneged on its promises of job creation in the process. Unemployment is at a 45-year high, and the unemployment crisis is pushing entire sections of workers, particularly those from marginalized and oppressed sections, into poverty, debt-traps, hunger, and further marginalization. Today a vast unorganized sector that comprises 93 percent of the total workforce and contributes 65 percent of the GDP are forced to work without any job security, wage security or social security.
Unwilling to create jobs at home, the government is keen to use the Indo-Israeli partnership to export workers in their thousands. During Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit to India on May 9, 2023, the “Framework Agreement on Facilitating Temporary Employment of Workers in Specific Labor Market Sectors in Israel” was signed. This agreement initially allowed the employment of 42,000 Indian workers in Israel. According to this, 34,000 workers will be engaged in the construction field and another 8,000 for nursing needs. Numerous human rights organizations have, for decades, reported the brutal and inhumane treatment of foreign workers in Israel. The purported job opportunities for Indian workers are thus recipes for their brutal exploitation, and a way out for the government to hide its economic failures at home.
More recently, in the context of the genocidal war on Gaza, Israel is seeking to replace the low paid Palestinian workers who have till recently been working in Israel under highly oppressive conditions. The Israel Builders’ Association has urged the Netanyahu government to consider hiring around 1,00,000 Indian workers as a replacement. The Indian government has reportedly agreed to the request, despite strong protests from Indian trade unions. The labor swap is not only immoral but also exposes Indian workers to grave security threats in the war zone.
The burgeoning military Indian industrial complex (MIC), in which multinational corporations are playing key roles, poses a threat to Indian sovereignty as well as the sovereignty of countries which import arms from these corporations. It also endangers the people of India as well as countries of the Global South which will be importing arms. Data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2021 shows that roughly 50 per cent of India’s defense exports from 2017 to 2021 were to its immediate neighbor Myanmar, followed by Sri Lanka at 25 per cent and Armenia at 11 per cent. The governments of each of these countries have track-records of committing atrocities on their own people. The Ministry of Defense also refers to “countries” in the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa, without clarifying which countries these are. One wonders which peace loving peoples of the Global South are falling victims to armaments supplied by their self-proclaimed leader.
While private arms manufacturers and suppliers prominently feature in conversations on MICs, private military contractors (PMCs) are emerging as a key part of these networks. PMCs get their arms from private suppliers and their personnel from national military forces. The recently launched Agnipath Scheme is set to create a pool of trained, young job-seeking soldiers and provide a fertile ground for PMCs, as opined by Indian defense experts. Imagine what havoc this can cause in a society rife with state-sponsored hatred and Hindu nationalist militias.
Globally, India may feel that it is on the right side of the big powers who are all standing with Israel at the moment. But large-scale peoples’ protests against the Israeli genocide are slowly eroding the pro-Israel ground from below even in Western imperialist countries. In the Global South, country after country has risen in protest against the genocide. Corporate greed, Modi’s quest for political legitimacy, and the Hindu nationalist project of molding India into an Israel-like majoritarian, authoritarian, and Islamophobic state, are leading India into murky alliances which may turn out to be quagmires in the times to come.