India's interests and capabilities extend well beyond the sub-continent. This essay is part of a series exploring the geopolitical dimensions, economic ties, transnational networks, and other aspects of India's links with the Middle East (West Asia) -- a region that plays a vital role in India's economy and future. More ...


When President Donald Trump announced that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem on December 6, 2017,[1] he effectively recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, much to the delight of the Netanyahu administration and its supporters.[2] At the same time, he undid a long-standing international consensus not to prejudge the city’s status before a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

India’s initial response to the US decision was ambivalent. When asked to articulate New Delhi’s position, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reported that “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country.”[3] An Indian commentator, characterizing this position as “neutral posturing,”  offered a compelling explanation for its adoption:

This highly-calibrated and diplomatically-measured statement encapsulates India’s complex balancing act with respect to not just Israel-Palestine, but also the US and the entire West Asian region extending to the Gulf.[4]

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, India has developed a strategic partnership with the United States — one that it values and is determined to preserve. Equally important to India are its multifaceted economic relations with the Gulf Arab states.[5]

The Indian Response to the US Declaration on Jerusalem 

Wider international opposition to the US decision continued in the weeks that followed. In India, several Arab ambassadors expressed their dissatisfaction with New Delhi’s position, pressing their interlocutors to take a stronger position.[6] On December 18 the UN Security Council voted 14 to 1 to uphold existing UN resolutions on Jerusalem, with the United States having cast the lone vote against the draft resolution and effectively vetoing it. The motion was subsequently referred to the UN General Assembly meeting in emergency session. In retaliation, the Trump administration threatened to cut off aid to countries critical of the US decision.[7]

Indian public opinion was divided in the lead up to the vote. Some wanted to see India vote in line with the US while others wanted it to vote against or abstain. Among the latter was the prominent analyst of India’s relations with the Israeli and Palestinian, P.R. Kumaraswamy, who argued that,

[The] US declaration on Jerusalem cannot become our problem. We have to point out that Jerusalem belongs to all its claimants and the claimants need to be reminded that they have repeatedly come up with exclusivist claims … India should not even abstain. Our representatives to the UN General Assembly should stay absent during the voting which would express our position effectively.[8]

When the votes were counted on December 21, 128 voted in favor of maintaining existing UN decisions (i.e. against the US position), with only nine against. Although India voted with the majority, the government argued that this was not a reversal of its previous position. New Delhi claimed that the position it adopted was no more than a reaffirmation of previous Indian support for the international consensus that “Jerusalem is neither the capital nor the territory of the two parties to the conflict.”[9] Therefore, it was not seen as a victory for Arab (and, by association, Palestinian) pressure. Indeed, following the vote, leaders in both India and Israel seemed keen to put it behind them, a point made when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to India the next month.[10] This was especially the case from the Israeli side, which seemed particularly keen to widen and deepen ties during the visit, in order to put them on a stronger footing when an eventual change of government in India happens.[11]

Contextualizing India’s Vote

Why does India’s recent UN vote represent neither a rejection of US policy nor of its current approach to Israel and the Palestinians? And why is Israel so keen to push for closer contacts with India now? To understand this, it is necessary to put Indian policy in context. First, India was one of the few countries to oppose the UN’s partition plan in November 1947, echoing its own experience during independence a few months earlier. In the decades that followed, the Indian political leadership actively supported the Palestinian cause and withheld full diplomatic relations with Israel in the hope that this position might earn Arab states’ support for its claims to Kashmir.[12] One example of this robust Indian stance against Israel and in support of the Arab position was its vote in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, adopted in November 1975, which “determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”[13]

Beginning in the 1980s, however, Indian policy towards the conflict began to change. So, too, did India’s relationship with the United States. As India’s Soviet patron entered a period of decline, Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi sought closer ties with the United States. It was during one of Rajiv Gandhi’s trips to the United States that he met with Israeli officials and reopened consular offices.[14] Following the 1991 Gulf War, Israelis and Arabs met at the Madrid Peace Conference (October 30-November 4) under joint US-Soviet sponsorship.[15] The conference prompted Indian policymakers to observe that if Arabs were prepared to speak to Israel, then why should India not do the same?[16] This set the stage for India to formally establish diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992, becoming the last major non-Arab, non-Muslim country to do so.

Since then, India-Israel relations, under the stewardship of both the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have grown warmer and stronger. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States and in the context of the US-led ‘global war on terror,’ Indian and Israeli leaders found common cause against Islamic militancy; and extended their bilateral cooperation to the defense, intelligence and security-related spheres.[17] Therefore, it is incorrect to assume, as many do, that the intensity of Indian-Israeli relations dates only to 2014, with the ascension of a BJP government under the premiership of Narendra.[18]

The growing ties between Israel and India are evident both in the economic and military spheres. Non-defense trade between the two countries climbed from $200 million in 1992 to $4.167 billion in 2016.[19] According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) arms database, India is the destination for 41 percent of Israel’s arms sales, which averaged $1 billion between 2012 and 2016.[20] Last April, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was awarded a $1.6 billion contract to provide medium-range surface-to-air missiles to the Indian Army.[21]

Kumaraswamy[22] has written that India’s relationship with Israel is “delinked” from the conflict with the Palestinians. Similarly, Malhotra calls it “de-hyphenated” since it is less connected to the Palestinians — an increasing feature of Israel’s relationship with other countries as well.[23] In practical terms, this is evident in other ways. Having previously voted on UN resolutions that were supportive of the Palestinians, in 2015 India abstained from the UN’s Human Rights Council report on the previous year’s Gaza war.

Last year, Indian policy underwent a “major shift.”[24] First, in July 2017 Modi broke a historic taboo by becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Second, during Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to India, Modi omitted any reference to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, thereby departing from a decade-long practice.[25] At the same time, it is perhaps worth noting that Modi’s failure to mention East Jerusalem is not unique to India. Analysts have reported silence by rising powers in other fora, including in declarations by the BRICS at their most recent summit in September 2017 and the Russia-India-China meeting in New Delhi in December 2017.[26]

Opposition in India to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement

Under Modi, India seems set to foster the further development of ties with Israel. Meanwhile, India’s relations with the Palestinians appear to be at a standstill. However, New Delhi's policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has encountered some opposition within Indian society. The most visible sources of discontent can be found among those social movements and groups which identify with the Palestinian cause, and especially those who are aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The BDS was formed among Palestinian organizations, associations, groups and social movements in July 2005. This was the immediate period after the violence of the Second Intifada (2000-05). Many BDS advocates saw it as an alternative to the Oslo peace process, which they believed had failed to deliver a just and lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Drawing on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa for inspiration, BDS activists focused less on realizing a Palestinian state and more on ending Palestinian discrimination and marginalization by Israel, along with the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. As part of its actions, advocates of BDS lobby governments to impose sanctions, boycotts and divestment in response to illegal Israeli actions. The international dimension is key to the BDS movement. To date, it has been most visible and active in building up links with like-minded individuals, movements and groups in countries which have the closest economic and social ties to Israel like North America and Europe.

In India several networks have emerged which identify with the BDS. Closely associated with the political left and the Muslim minority, they include: the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which is closely identified with the communist parties in India; the India-Palestine People’s Solidarity Forum, which is associated with Muslim communities in India; and independent civil society organizations such as the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and civil liberties groups in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Hyderabad.[27] Although sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, these groups are as much concerned about the development of a military-industrial complex in India and the role of foreign firms, including Israeli companies, in such a process. They have therefore lobbied the Indian government against using public funds to purchase Israeli arms.[28]

At the same time, it is important not to overstate the role of BDS influence in India. BDS supporters occupy a small space within the broader political landscape as it relates to Israel policy. Their scope for action is limited: beyond arms purchases, overall trade with Israel is small and, as a consequence, so is likely to be the impact of boycotts, sanctions and divestment. In addition, efforts to build ties have occurred beyond the national level, with regional and some leftist parties across India also cultivating political and economic relations with Israel over the past two decades.[29]

Future Directions

Given the constraints faced by opponents to government policy, it is unlikely that India is going to change course regarding its approach towards Israel and the Palestinians. The political establishment is broadly supportive of the direction which began under Congress in the 1980s-90s and which has sharpened under Modi and the BJP since 2014.

As the UN vote over Jerusalem demonstrated, Indian policymakers believe that they can accommodate both the demands of the international community to maintain previous commitments regarding Jerusalem (and the Palestinians) while also developing more extensive ties with Israel. They therefore pursue what they believe is a balanced approach without regard for the underlying dynamics and structural disparities between the conflict parties. On one side is Israel, a state and regional power in the Middle East. On the other side are the Palestinians, whose sovereignty in the form of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza is circumscribed by Israeli control over territory, settlement building and blockade (in the case of Gaza).

In sum, Indian policy appears to be guided primarily by strategic considerations. In a context in which India has developed a strategic partnership with the United States — Israel’s foremost ally — it seems highly unlikely that New Delhi will embrace the role of a peacemaker, no matter how many times it votes to uphold prior international commitments regarding the status of Jerusalem or the Palestinian question. In fairness to the Modi administration, the path that it has followed regarding Israel and the Palestinians bears a striking resemblance to that of other rising powers, namely China.


[1] Mark Landler, “Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital and Orders U.S. Embassy To Move,” New York Times, December 6, 2017, accessed January 16, 2018, https://Www.Nytimes.Com/2017/12/06/World/Middleeast/Trump-Jerusalem-Israel-Capital.Html.

[2] Gil Hoffman, Israeli Right Hails ‘Historic’ Trump Decision, Left Predicts Regional Chaos,” Jerusalem Post, December 5, 2018, accessed January 18, 2018, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Israeli-politicians-react-to-Trumps-immiment-embassy-decision-517097.

[3] Ben Cohen, “India, China and Russia Refrain from Recognizing East Jerusalem as Capital of Palestine in Joint Statement,” The Algemeiner, December 13, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, Https://Www.Algemeiner.Com/2017/12/13/India-China-And-Russia-Refrain-From-Recognizing-East-Jerusalem-As-Capital-Of-Palestine-In-Joint-Statement/.

[4] Angshuman Choudhury, “Donald Trump’s Jerusalem Decision: India’s ‘Independent’ Stand Reflects Neutrality Over Israel-Palestine Issue,” First Post, December 8, 2017, Accessed January 18, 2018http://Www.Firstpost.Com/India/Donald-Trump-Recognises-Jerusalem-As-Israels-Capital-Indias-Independent-Stand-Reflects-Delicate-Balancing-Act-On-World-Stage-4247365.Html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sanjeev Miglani, “India’s Muted Response to Trump’s Jerusalem Move Stokes Arab Unease,” Reuters, December 18, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, https://Www.Reuters.Com/Article/Us-Usa-Trump-Israel-India/Indias-Muted-Response-To-Trumps-Jerusalem-Move-Stokes-Arab-Unease-Iduskbn1ec0px.

[7] Peter Beaumont, “Trump threatens to cut aid to countries over UN Jerusalem vote,” The Guardian, December 21, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/20/donald-trump-threat-cut….

[8] Suhasini Haidar And Bhattacherjee, “Lobbying Intensifies for India’s UNGA Vote on Jerusalem,” The Hindu, December 27, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Thehindu.Com/News/International/Lobbying-Intensifies-For-Indias-Unga-Vote-On-Jerusalem/Article22121462.Ece.

[9] Syed Ata Hasnain, “India’s Jerusalem Vote: How It Should Be Seen,” Swarajya, December 22, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, https://Swarajyamag.Com/World/Indias-Jerusalem-Vote-How-It-Should-Be-Seen.

[10] Herb Keinon, “Netanhayu Travels to India for Visit Focused on Economic Issues,” Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2018, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Jpost.Com/Israel-News/Netanyahu-Travels-To-India-For-Visit-Focused-On-Economic-Issues-534659.

[11] Herb Keinon, “What is India’s De-Hyphenation Policy Towards Israel and Why Does It Matter?” Jerusalem Post, January 18, 2018, accessed January 21, 2018, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/India-Israel/What-is-Indias-de-hyphenation-policy-toward-Israel-and-why-does-it-matter-538170.

[12] Richard Ward, West Asia In Indian Foreign Policy. Phd Dissertation, University of Cincinnati. 1970. See also, P.R. Kumaraswamy, India’s Israel Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) 216-217.

[13] For the text of the resolution, see United Nations General Assembly, “Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” A/RES/3379, November 10, 1975, accessed January 18, 2018, https://Web.Archive.Org/Web/20121206052903/Http://Unispal.Un.Org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/761C1063530766A7052566A2005B74D1. Note that Resolution 3379 was revoked on December 16, 1991. See Paul Lewis, “U.N. Repeals Its ’75 Resolution Equating Zionism With Racism,” The New York Times, December 17, 1991, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Nytimes.Com/1991/12/17/World/Un-Repeals-Its-75-Resolution-Eq….

[14] Chris Ogden, Indian Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).

[15] For a brief discussion of the circumstances surrounding the conference, as well as of its proceedings and results, see United States Department of State, Office of the Historian, “The Madrid Conference, 1991,” accessed January 18, 2018, https://History.State.Gov/Milestones/1989-1992/Madrid-Conference.

[16] P.R. Kumaraswamy, “Israel and India: Israel’s New Friend,” In Colin Shindler (Ed.), Israel And The World Powers (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2014): 92-105.

[17] P.R. Kumaraswamy, “The Maturation of Indo-Israeli Ties,” Middle East Quarterly 20, 2 (2013): 39-48, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Meforum.Org/3494/India-Israel-Ties; and Ashok Sharma and Dov Bing, “Israel-Indian Relations: The Evolving Partnership,” Israel Affairs 21, 4 (2015): 620-632, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Tandfonline.Com/Doi/Full/10.1080/13537121.2015.1076189?Scrol….

[18] See, for example, Keinon, “What is India’s De-Hyphenation Policy Towards Israel and Why Does It Matter?”, who calls the de-hyphenation policy a “revolution.” See also, Ram Madhav, “The meaning of de-hyphenation,” The Indian Express, July 11, 2018, accessed January 21, 2018, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-international-relations-modi-in-israelbenjamin-netanyahuwest-asia-meaning-of-de-hyphenation-4744780/; HT Correspondent, “Modi’s historic visit to de-hyphenate relations with Palestinians, says Israeli media,” Hindustan Times, July 4, 2018, accessed January 21, 2018, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/modi-s-historic-visit-to-de-hyphenate-relations-with-palestinians-says-israeli-media/story-xlfCaNa6cAw94pMnsgIQvK.html.

[19] Sharon Udasin, “Israeli-Indian Trade on the Rise,” Jerusalem Post, June 28, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Jpost.Com/Israel-News/Economy-Ministry-Trade-With-India-On-T….

[20] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), SIPRI Arms Transfers Database (various years), accessed March 27, 2017, https://Www.Sipri.Org/Databases/Armstransfers.

[21] Anna Ahronheim, “Israeli Firm Inks Historic $2 Billion Defense Deal with India,” Jerusalem Post, April 6, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Jpost.Com/Israel-News/Israeli-Firm-Inks-Historic-2-Billion-D….

[22] Kumaraswamy, The Maturation of Indo-Israeli Ties.”

[23] Shairee Malhotra, “Explaining India’s UN Vote On Jerusalem,” The Diplomat, December 28, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, https://Thediplomat.Com/2017/12/Explaining-Indias-Un-Vote-On-Jerusalem/.

[24] P.R. Kumaraswamy, “BRICS Without East Jerusalem,” BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 607, October 8, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, https://Besacenter.Org/Perspectives-Papers/Brics-Jerusalem/.

[25] Sanjeev Miglani, “India’s Muted Response To Trump’s Jerusalem Move Stokes Arab Unease,” Reuters, December 18, 2017, Accessed January 18, 2018, Https://Www.Reuters.Com/Article/Us-Usa-Trump-Israel-India/Indias-Muted-Response-To-Trumps-Jerusalem-Move-Stokes-Arab-Unease-Iduskbn1ec0px.

[26] Kumaraswamy, “BRICS Without East Jerusalem”; “India, China, Russia Refrain From Seeking East Jerusalem As Palestine Capital,” Coastal Digest, December 12, 2017, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Coastaldigest.Com/India/India-China-Russia-Refrain-Seeking-East-Jerusalem-Palestine-Capital; and Ben Cohen, “India, China And Russia Refrain From Recognizing East Jerusalem as Capital of Palestine in Joint Statement,” The Algemeiner, December 13, 2017, Accessed January 18, 2018,  Https://Www.Algemeiner.Com/2017/12/13/India-China-And-Russia-Refrain-From-Recognizing-East-Jerusalem-As-Capital-Of-Palestine-In-Joint-Statement/.

[27] Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen, “Interview with Achin Vanaik on the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and India-Palestine Solidarity,” Jadaliyya, January 30, 2015, accessed January 18, 2018, http://Www.Jadaliyya.Com/Pages/Index/20700/Interview-With-Achin-Vanaik-On-The-Indian-Campaign.

[28] Omar Barghouti, BDS Co-Founder. Interview with the author. September 29, 2015.

[29] P.R. Kumaraswasy, “Why did Rahul and Netanyahu not meet?” The Indian Express, January 16, 2018, accessed January 21, 2018, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/rahul-gandhi-benjamin-netanyahu-india-israel-narendra-modi-5026782/.