Documents captured from radicals and terrorists in Pakistan warn darkly about a new axis of evil in the world: a ‘Zionist Hindu Crusader‘ alliance bringing Israel, India, and the United States together in a war on Islam. They are wrong about the last part; all three countries want peaceful relations with Islamic countries based on mutual recognition and respect. The alliance isn’t a closed club, and Islamic countries are welcome to join. Otherwise, however, the radicals have a point. The deepening relations between the United States, India, and Israel are changing the geopolitical geometry of the modern world in ways that will make the lives of fanatical terrorists even more dismal and depressing (not to mention shorter) than they already are. Israel and the United States are both in a better long term position than many Americans sometimes think; one of the main reasons is an Indian-Israeli connection that most Americans know nothing about.
Americans often underestimate Israel: we underestimate Israel’s ability to conduct a foreign policy independent of US support and we underestimate Israel’s long term prospects for success in its region. Indeed, Americans often talk about Israel as if we were the Jewish state’s only real friend — and that Israel is completely dependent on American goodwill.
That’s not true historically and it’s not true today. The Soviet Union (through its Czechoslovakian satellite regime) provided Israel with the arms that gave it the decisive advantage in its War of Independence. The British and French armed and supported Israel in the 1956 Suez War. France provided Israel with the core of its nuclear technology and France supplied Israel with the Mirage jets which destroyed the Arab air forces at the outset of the Six-Day War. During all this time the United States government did not provide Israel with much help; no Israeli prime minister was even invited to Washington until 1964 when Levi Eshkol met with President Lyndon Johnson.
While the United States today is unquestionably Israel’s most important ally and partner, we are not the only game in town. The United States isn’t the country where Israel enjoys its highest favorable ratings; according to a survey carried out for the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 2009, India is the country where people like Israel the most. According to the survey, 58 percent of Indians supported Israel; 56 percent of Americans in the survey felt that way.
What makes that more surprising is that India is the country with the third-largest number of Muslims in the world. An estimated 160 million Muslims live in India, 13.4 percent of the total population. Even Muslims in India are (relatively) pro-Israel; in 2007 a delegation of Indian Muslims led by a group representing the 500,000 member All India Association of Imams met in Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres on a visit intended to advance the ‘democratic understanding’ of Israel among Indian Muslims.
The relationship isn’t just about good wishes. India has the largest (reported) defense budget of any developing country; Israel is India’s largest supplier of arms. As two of the leading IT countries in the world, India and Israel also collaborate on a variety of high tech projects, some with military implications.
Although both India and Israel were born at the same time — a collapsing British Empire was hastily liquidating its overseas commitments — for many years they had little to do with each other. Britain’s inglorious scuttle from imperial responsibility left festering issues for both countries: Palestine and Kashmir. It was a strategic objective of Indian foreign policy to keep the Kashmir question away from the United Nations, and in particular to avoid a united Islamic bloc on the question. Siding with Israel seemed a good way to trigger exactly the hostility India wanted to avoid. Later in the Cold War period, India’s close relationship with the Soviet Union encouraged a distance between India and America’s close Middle Eastern ally. As a result, as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, India was one of Israel’s toughest opponents, voting consistently with the Arabs to isolate Israel in international bodies (informally, ties were often closer, especially in business).
In one of the least-noted but perhaps more important shifts of the post Cold War world, that has all changed. Currently, Israel isn’t just popular in India. It is India’s largest supplier of high-tech weapons and the growing cooperation between the two countries is spreading into both economic and political fields. There is a strategic compatibility in their interests. Economically, the marriage of Indian and Israeli high-tech know how with India’s enormous force of educated, English-speaking labor, its vast internal market, and Israel’s marketing experience and connections with the advanced industrial economies make for a natural complementarity. Israel welcomes the rise of Indian economic and political influence in the Middle East and East Africa. Both countries view the activities of radicals in Pakistan and their use of Pakistan and Afghanistan for wider regional ambitions with deep concern.
There’s another connection. The United States increasingly favors the emergence of India as a world and regional power. In the context of the Middle East and Africa, Americans see India as a stabilizing, anti-extremist force. More broadly, while the United States isn’t (and shouldn’t be) operating a policy of containment against China, the growing prosperity and power of India in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East is an important positive factor in maintaining the kind of international order the United States wants to see. That means, among other things, that the United States is likely to look with more favor on transfers of technological know how and the sales of advanced weapons systems from Israel to India than from Israel to China. This preference reinforces the ties between the two most successful democracies to emerge from British colonialism in modern Asia.
The growing Israel-India connection is only beginning to make itself felt. Long term, the relationship provides Israel with another great power ally to supplement its relationship with the United States. From both a geopolitical and an economic point of view, the relationship with India helps assure Israel of a long-term future in the region. As India develops and its power grows, the Gulf Arabs, Iran (a natural long-term ally for both India and Israel once it moves beyond the delusional and dead-end geopolitical agenda of its current government), and countries like Sudan and Somalia will increasingly feel its influence. India and Israel, with the quiet blessing of the United States, can also do more to promote economic development and democracy in East Africa — a region that has historically had close links to India and which is of great strategic importance to Israel.
This “Zionist Hindu Crusader” alliance is a nightmare scenario for radicals and terrorists in the Islamic world. The emergence of closer relations between the American global superpower, the regional Israeli military, and technological superpower, and the rising superpower of India is a basic challenge to the worldview of the extremists. The radicals have imagined a world in which the west and especially America is in decline, Israel faces a deep crisis, and a resurgent Islamic world is emerging as a new world-historical power.
Suppose none of that is happening. Suppose instead that both the United States and Israel are going to prosper and grow, based in part on their economic relationship with India. Suppose that Israel’s extraordinary culture of high-tech innovation will be energized by the relationship with India so that Israel’s technological and scientific lead over its neighbors continues to grow over time. Suppose that Indian power will be returning to the Gulf and East Africa, and that not only Pakistan but the Arab world will be increasingly focused on accommodating the rise of a new regional, and ultimately global, superpower. Add to this that immense natural gas discoveries off Israel’s coastline are revolutionizing the country’s long term economic position and security strategy.
In that kind of world the arguments and the ideas of religious radicals won’t make much sense to most people. On the other hand, the economic dynamism created by the explosive growth of the Indian economy (assuming of course that the trend toward double-digit GDP growth continues) will offer the Arab world (and Pakistan) new opportunities for rapid economic development of their own. At the same time, the growing diplomatic and political influence that a rising India will have in the region will add new weight to American efforts to help the region move toward peace and reconciliation. In this kind of world, Islamic radicalism can’t deliver and its basic assumptions look shallow and unconvincing.
India has some unfinished business at home and in the neighborhood before it can fully emerge as the kind of power it hopes to become. The benefits of economic growth need to be felt more widely and long-festering social tensions and issues need to be addressed. More Indians need more access to more education and more personal and intellectual freedom. Relations with Pakistan need to improve; nothing would improve India’s security at home or enhance its ability to play a major regional role as much as reconciliation with Pakistan (And nothing could be worse for India than the continued descent of Pakistan into the horrors of terrorism and civil strife). India must also keep up with China in the race to develop; one area in which it lags considerably behind is infrastructure, and unless India finds a way to accelerate the construction of roads, power plants, port facilities and to provide for the orderly and rapid development of land for industrial sites it will have a hard time matching China’s awesome surge forward.
It will take time for India to overcome these obstacles, but in the last twenty years it has managed to double its economic rate of growth while changing the fundamental orientation of its foreign policy after the Cold War. These are the marks of a country led by serious people who understand their long-term interests, have a clear view of the world, and are prepared to move with great determination to secure their vital interests. They are, in other words, good people to have on your side.
Israel’s strategic relationship with India–warmly embraced by both countries and cheered on by the United States,– may well turn out to be one of the most important international connections in the twenty-first century. That it receives so little attention in the US and abroad illustrates the difficulty of understanding the twenty-first century with ideas and assumptions forged in the twentieth. India is no longer a relatively minor power and it is no longer anti-American and anti-Israel. Those are big changes; attention must be paid.