The article originally appeared on India Today.


Mahatma Gandhi had clearly spelled out that though he was sympathetic to the Jews and was aware of their persecutions, he was not in favour of a forced settlement between Israel and Palestine, which was already home to the Arabs.

Although he blamed the Christian community for wronging the Jews, he believed that Palestine belonged to Arabs in the same way as England belonged to English and France to French. Mahatma Gandhi was of the firm opinion that the Jews had erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain.


India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru held the same belief and followed the line taken by Mahatma Gandhi in saying no to Israel if it was not with the permission of the Arabs of Palestine. He even refused Albert Einstein’s appeal to vote in favour of the partition of Palestine, an event that later led to formation of Israel on May 14, 1948. Other factors, too, weighed heavily on Nehru’s mind when he said no to Einstein and when India voted against the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) resolution on partition of Palestine on November 29 1947.

India was already facing the trauma of partition on religious lines, ravaging its geographies, and Nehru, probably, could not support another country’s partition on religious lines. To add to that India had a sizeable Muslim population that was traditionally opposed to creation of Israel on the Palestinian land. Also, an immediate war with Pakistan was looming large and Nehru needed the global community’s support including the Arab nations.


India formally recognised Israel post independence in September 1950. However its Israel policy was driven by the principled stand of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and India’s international approach on issues as aligned with its domestic needs. Nehru had mentioned this in his reply to Einstein that national leaders needed to be selfish to see the interest of their countries first when it came to geopolitics. So India continued with its pro-Palestine policy in line with its principled stand and the sentiments of its large Muslim population, coupled with the fact that more and more Indians were heading to the Gulf nations and it was fast emerging as a major source of remittances.

In addition, India was also dependent on the Arab nations for oil supply to meet its energy needs. Emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1950s, of which Nehru was a founding member, further drove India away from taking any pro-Israel stand openly. NAM had its origin in the Cold War which had divided the world in two blocks, pro-USSR and pro-USA. NAM countries proclaimed they would have neutral stand in global affairs instead of going with any block of the nations.


The 1962 India China war was the first occasion when when Nehru wrote to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion for shipments of arms and ammunition. Nehru had requested Ben Gurion to ship weapons without the Israeli flag as it could have adversely affected India’s ties with the Arab nations. Though expressing sympathy and solidarity with India, Ben Gurion refused help. Israel sent shipments to India only when India said it would accept them with the Israeli flag. And that is when when Israel and India started communicating at strategic levels.


The 1971 war between India and Pakistan that led to formation of Bangladesh was the next significant step in taking forward India-Israel strategic cooperation. Srinath Raghavan’s book 1971, quoting Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s adviser PN Haksar, says even if Israel was not in a position to supply arms to India, its Prime Minister Golda Meir diverted the shipment meant for Iran to India. Israel also provided India with intelligence support. In return, Golda Meir asked for full diplomatic ties.


It was in 1992 when India finally established full diplomatic relations with Israel but only after taking Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on board. Arafat was in Delhi and after meeting Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, he announced that establishing embassies and maintaining diplomatic ties were India’s sovereign decisions and he respected it. There were two reasons behind it.

The first was the peace process between Israel and Palestine was in an advanced state at that time. State of Israel and Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized each other for the first time with the US mediated Oslo Accord signed in Washington in 1993. For their peace efforts, Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were jointly given the Nobel Peace Prize of 1994.

The second was the pressure from United States. The version in bureaucratic circles is as India needed now a global interface for its economy after it decided to follow economic liberalization in 1991 as well as new markets for to meets its defence needs after the USSR collapse, its main defence supplier, it found America as the obvious choice. But in return, America asked India to accommodate Israel in its foreign policy. And the timing was opportune as the ongoing peace process helped India in convincing Arafat, something that helped India in dealing with the Arab nations. What was sought by Golda Meir from Indira Gandhi in 1971 finally became a reality on January 29 1992 and Indira’s foreign minister Narasimha Rao, who was now the prime minister, drove the development.


India’s second series of nuclear tests in 1998 saw the US and other western countries imposing sanctions. However, it didn’t affect India much as Israel filled the gap effectively delivering the US arms as it had close military ties .


The 1999 Kargil war was a leap in terms of India-Israel military cooperation. Israel provided India with mortar ammunitions, surveillance drones and laser guided missiles along with intelligence inputs that helped in winding up the war with a befitting reply to Pakistan. It is said that the Kargil War pushed India to introspect on its security loopholes and the country decided to modernise its forces. Next year, in 2000, India’s Home Minister LK Advani and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh paid a visit to Israel beginning the series of ministerial level visits to Israel.


In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India. Strengthening the bilateral ties, the Delhi Statement of Friendship and Cooperation was signed. Though Sharon had to cut short his visit due to terror attacks in Tel Aviv, his Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid had, for the first time on record, accepted that “India and Israel had closes ties in defence and Israel was the second largest supplier of weapons to India.”


Though ministerial and other bilateral visits between India and Israel continued unabated all this while, it is said that the Manmohan Singh led UPA government was not in favour of speaking much about India-Israel defence and strategic ties and rather focused on agriculture, science and technology for mutual areas of cooperation.

Confirming this line of thought, Israeli Ambassador to India, David Carmon, had said last year when Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was leaving for Israel that “though India-Israel ties had evolved over the last 25 years, it had been more visible under the Modi government.”

And now to take that “visibility” to the next level of bilateral cooperation, Narendra Modi is visiting Israel in the first ever prime-ministerial visit to Israel and what is the defining moment here is he has dehyphenated the Palestine ties with the Israel ties, unlike any previous official visit when Indian leaders made it a point to include both Palestine and Israel in their itinerary. During his visit in October 2015, first by an Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee first went to Palestine and then to Israel. Sushma Swaraj followed suit during her January 2016 visit.



Though India had formally recognized Israel in 1950, it took decades before it established full diplomatic ties with the country in early 1990s. The foundation of India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine was laid by Mahatma Gandhi who, though sympathised with the Jews for their persecution, was never in favour of a forced state of Israel in Palestine against the wishes of Palestinians and Arabs. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister religiously followed this line and India voted against the resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly for partition of Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews that led to formation of Israel as an independent state on May 14, 1948.

Before the scheduled day of UN vote on November 29, 1947, the Jewish leaders were holding hectic parleys and were lobbying with the UN member countries to vote in favour of the partition. To gain India’s support, the Jewish leadership convinced the best known Jewish face of the time, Albert Einstein, to bring India on board. Nehru respected Einstein as a scientist and humanist.

According to an analysis of communication between Nehru and Einstein on the issue, analysed by Israeli professor and historian Benny Morris, published in The Guardian, the Jewish leaders urged Einstein to write to Nehru hoping it could do the “miracle of persuading India to vote in favour of a Jewish state.”

Einstein wrote to Nehru on June 13, 1947. His four page letter touched themes like persecution of the Jews since the ancient times and recent massacre by Adolf Hitler and compared the Jews with the untouchables of India, something that Mahatma Gandhi had written about in past. Praising India for abolishing Untouchability, he called India to stand for the rights “an ancient people with roots are in the East who have been victims of persecution and discrimination for centuries”, invoking “justice and inequality”.

Though Einstein was not in favour of a nation state and had long advocated for an Arab-Jewish state than a Jewish state where the Arabs and the Jews would live together in peace, the communication says he was forced to change his opinion, “The Jewish people alone has for centuries been in the anomalous position of being victimised and hounded as a people, though bereft of all the rights and protections which even the smallest people normally has. Zionism (the movement to establish Israel) offered the means of ending this discrimination. Through the return to the land to which they were bound by close historic ties, Jews sought to abolish their pariah status among peoples.”

Making the case of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Einstein wrote that “one of the most extraordinary features of the Jewish rebuilding of Palestine was that the influx of Jewish pioneers resulted not in the displacement and impoverishment of the local Arab population but in its phenomenal increase and greater prosperity.”

But Einstein’s appeal failed to convince Nehru to leave India’s principled stand for the Palestinian cause and vote in favour of Palestine’s partition for the proposed Jewish state.

In reply to Einstein’s letter, he wrote back on July 11, 1947, “I confess that while I have a very great deal of sympathy for the Jews I feel sympathy for the Arabs also. I know that the Jews have done a wonderful piece of work in Palestine and have raised the standards of the people there, but one question troubles me. After all these remarkable achievements, why have they failed to gain the goodwill of the Arabs? Why do they want to compel the Arabs to submit against their will to certain demands [i.e., partition and Jewish statehood]?”

Nehru also made it clear to Einstein that apart from India’s principled stand, it was also because of India’s policy concerns on domestic and international developments which could not allow India to vote in favour of Israel, “National leaders, unfortunately, had to pursue essentially selfish policies. Each country thinks of its own interest first. If it so happens that some international policy fits in with the national policy of the country, then that nation uses brave language about international betterment. But as soon as that international policy seems to run counter to national interests or selfishness, then a host of reasons are found not to follow that international policy.”

India, which was going to celebrate its first Independence Day a month later, on August 15, 1947, had a sizeable Muslim population which was opposed to the Jewish occupation of Palestine. Besides, the wounds of India’s partition along the religion lines were still fresh. Also, a war with Pakistan was looming large and India needed international support including from the Arab nations.

The UNGA resolution on division of Palestine was passed with a mandate of 33 votes while 13 member countries, including India, voted against it. All six Arab member countries of the UN staged walk-out highlighting the fact that the partition was not acceptable to the Arab nations.

10 countries along with Britain abstained from voting. The British stand was bizarre because it was an ill-conceived and half-baked British document only, known as 1917 Balfour Declaration that gave rise to the whole Palestine-Israel issue as we see it today. The British stand was that anything inimical to the interests of the existing non-Jewish communities would not be acceptable while advocating for Jewish homeland in the British Mandate of Palestine, something that made it to abstain from voting 30 years later. Nehru’s was also against the Balfour Declaration because it sought to create a Jewish nation in Palestine which was not “empty and uninhabited and was already a home to Arabs.”