From news article:
"We do have a defence relationship with India, which is no secret. On the other hand, what is a secret is what is the defence relationship. And with all due respect, the secret part of it will remain secret." - Mark Sofer, Israel's ambassador to India, in a recent interview given to OutlookIndia.com.
Indian foreign policy in the early days after its independence was heavily pro-Arab, partly due to the fact that India has a huge Muslim population which empathised with the Arab world and viewed Israel with suspicion and distrust. But that was not the only reason.
Almost a decade before independence, the father of the Indian freedom movement, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, had clearly articulated his position on the issue. In an editorial in the Harijan, a widely circulated Indian weekly, on November 11, 1938, Gandhi declared: "My sympathies are with the Jews ... but my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me ... Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood? Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home."
India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed. Nehru was among the founder members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), along with Presidents Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. This relationship with Nasser and other Arab members of the movement made it difficult for Nehru to align openly with Israel. Besides, while the NAM was an attempt to stay non-aligned during the Cold War, Israel was seen as too closely aligned with the US.
Another reason for India's coldness towards Israel was that, after independence, a large number of Indian workers migrated to the Gulf. The money that they sent back to India formed a sizeable chunk of India's foreign exchange inflow.
This foreign policy position laid out by Nehru and Gandhi was challenged, however, by opposition parties in India from both ends of the political spectrum; they consistently argued for better relations with Israel.
Although formal relations between India and Israel were established only in 1992 during the tenure of Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, informal relations in the areas of defence and intelligence had commenced long before that. It is interesting that Rao, who was prime minister from June 1991 to May 1996, also aggressively wooed Iran, a nation which did not recognise Israel's statehood, preferring to describe it, instead, as "the Zionist regime".
India's historically hostile relations with Pakistan are often cited as a key reason for the India-Israel defence and intelligence link. But military aid from Israel (mostly in the form of artillery shells) was received by India even during the 1962 India-China border war, which ended only when the Chinese unilaterally withdrew to their pre-attack positions.
Before Rao officially recognised Israel in 1992, Indian and Israeli intelligence officials often met surreptitiously in third countries, particularly after the India-Pakistan war of 1971.
During that war, which led to the birth of Bangladesh from Pakistan's eastern wing, Israel again helped India with mortars and ammunition. One of the Indian heroes of that war was the then eastern command chief, General JFR Jacob - a Jew.
Then, during the Kargil war of May-July 1999, when India attempted to repel Pakistani intruders who had taken up positions on the higher reaches of the Kargil mountains, Israel quickly sent Heron and Searcher unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to locate and identify the Pakistani-held positions. It also supplied ammunition for the Bofors field guns and night vision equipment, both of which played key roles in the conflict.
Endorsing Palestinian cause
Paradoxically, India also, simultaneously, endorsed and espoused the Palestinian cause.........
In 1947, India voted against the partition of Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly. India was the first non-Arab state to recognise the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] as sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974. India was one of the first countries to recognise the state of Palestine in 1988. In 1996, India opened its Representative Office to the Palestine Authority in Gaza. The office was moved to Ramallah in 2003
An 'unwritten axis'
Over the years, however, the India-Israel relationship has burgeoned into a situation where Israel is poised to become the largest defence supplier to India, a position currently held by Russia. Israel also trains Indian special forces, which are then deployed in the troubled region of Kashmir and in India's north-east areas.
Apart from strategic and military interactions between the two nations, Israeli sensors and satellites are used extensively to monitor the Kashmir border to detect infiltration by insurgents from Kashmir and Pakistan.
While officially tight-lipped over nuclear cooperation, the two states clearly share deep concerns about the possibility of nuclear proliferation by Pakistan, as well as Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In September 2003, during the visit to India by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (the first such visit by an Israeli prime minister), his deputy (now late) Yosef Lapid told journalists that an "unwritten, abstract" axis had been created between Israel, India and the US. While there was no "formal triangular agreement ... there is mutual interest of the three countries in making the world a more secure place for all of us. There is American support for development of this unwritten axis," Lapid told reporters in New Delhi. Therefore, "in the abstract sense, we are creating such an axis".
India - and Israel - have taken pains to spell out that this relationship is not at the expense of India's relations with the Arab states. Indian diplomats and politicians keep pointing to the fact that India has publicly condemned Operation Cast Lead, Israel's name for the blistering three-week long attack on the Gaza Strip in late 2008-early 2009.
India also joined in the international condemnation of the May 31, 2010 pre-dawn Israeli attack on the Turkish Ship Mavi Marmara, which led the "Gaza Freedom flotilla" carrying humanitarian aid for the people of the blockaded Gaza Strip. Nine people were killed in the attack by Israeli commandos.
But while successive governments in New Delhi have been quietly trying to maintain and develop India's relationship with Israel without overly antagonising the Arab world, there are times when the stress shows. Take, for instance, the article written by recently-removed minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, in January 2009. Tharoor was India's candidate for the UN secretary general's post in 2006. He quit after losing to Ban Ki-moon, and joined Indian politics. The syndicated column, distributed worldwide, was run by Israel's Haaretz newspaper with the title: "India's Israel Envy". The article, which coincided with Israel's operation Cast Lead, caused an uproar, both domestically and internationally.
During his election campaign in March 2009, the opposition used the article to imply that Tharoor endorsed the Israeli military operation in Gaza. Earlier, several Arab diplomats in New Delhi also voiced their concern, asking whether Tharoor's article reflected the ruling Congress Party's position on Israel.
Tharoor was subsequently forced to write another article defending himself, and clarifying that he had not endorsed Israel's military campaign in Gaza, and pointing to what he regarded as his long and consistent pro-Palestinian stand during his stint at the United Nations.