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Ordinary Indians instinctively grasp the natural confluence of interests with Israel.
Even as pro-Palestinian protestors take to the streets of London and Paris, Israel’s ties with the world’s largest democracy are on the upswing. For the first time in a decade, New Delhi appears ready to suggest publicly what many officials already acknowledge privately: A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
India’s new warmth toward Jerusalem is unmistakable. Two days after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, India’s Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the “tragic loss of civilian lives” in the Gaza Strip. But it also signaled alarm at “cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks” on Israel.
On Monday, the government of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to bow to pressure from communist and Congress lawmakers to censure Israel in Parliament. Eight years ago, a previous Parliament had no trouble condemning Israel in a one-sided resolution passed during its war with the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Why the change? To begin with, the Modi administration arguably has more natural affinity with Israel than any previous Indian government. Mr. Modi visited Israel as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and has spoken publicly about emulating the Jewish state’s remarkable economic success. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj used to head an India-Israel “friendship forum” in Parliament. Several parliamentarians and intellectuals aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have traveled more than once to Israel.
Unlike India’s leftists, who tend to view Israel as a “neoimperialist aggressor” oppressing the Palestinians, most BJP supporters see the Jewish state more like most Americans do—as a doughty democracy standing up to terrorism in a rough neighborhood. Both countries face a threat from Islamist terrorists.
To be sure, the pursuit of closer ties with Jerusalem is hardly a BJP monopoly. Congress Party Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ended India’s Cold War hostility toward Israel by establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992.
But Mr. Rao acted when the Nehru-Gandhi family’s sway over Congress was at its lowest ebb. India’s founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was an outspoken partisan of the Palestinians. Under his daughter, Indira Gandhi, bear hugs for the blood-soaked Palestine Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat became commonplace in India.
In 2004, when Congress returned to power under Sonia Gandhi after ousting the BJP, India-Israel ties turned frosty. Instead of simply maintaining its longstanding support for a two-state solution, India threw its weight behind the Palestinian demand for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. High level government visits between India and Israel lost momentum, though bilateral trade, defense and intelligence ties set in motion by previous governments quietly continued to grow.
Though dressed up in principle, Congress’s tilt toward the Palestinians was all about domestic politics. It assumed that India’s 150 million Muslims are almost uniformly hostile to Israel and care more about the issue than do other Indians.
By the reductionist logic of Indian politics, you don’t win votes by backing Israel but you can lose Muslim votes if your support is too obvious. Two years ago, on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked an opponent for allegedly promising to make a drought-stricken region bloom like the Israeli desert, a dog whistle aimed at Muslim voters.
For India, an end to the so-called Muslim veto is unambiguously good news. Indian farmers of all faiths can benefit from Israeli expertise in drip irrigation. Startups in Bangalore and Hyderabad see Israeli firms like Check Point (software) and Teva (pharmaceuticals) as role models. The rise of radical Islam across South Asia and the Middle East has raised the stakes for intelligence sharing between Jerusalem and New Delhi. The global norm that Israel is fighting to uphold—that terrorism has consequences—directly benefits India.
In terms of military cooperation, few countries have backed New Delhi as Israel did by supplying artillery shells during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. Since then, Israel has emerged as India’s second biggest arms supplier after Russia.
The arguments put forward against closer ties with Israel—India’s dependence on energy supplies and worker remittances from the Gulf—date to the 1970s. They downplay the facts that oil and gas are freely traded international commodities, and that Gulf economies that rely on Indian labor are hardly doing India a favor by employing its workers.
Many ordinary Indians instinctively grasp the natural confluence of interests with Israel. Last week, as the conflict in Gaza intensified, the hashtag #IndiaWithIsrael trended on Twitter in India, and a group linked with the BJP organized a rally in Delhi in support of Operation Protective Edge.
The challenge for India’s new government is to consolidate this positive sentiment toward Israel to ensure that no future administration can backslide again. It can start by scheduling a visit by Mr. Modi to Israel—which would be the first by a sitting Indian prime minister.
Inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit New Delhi, perhaps as chief guest at next January’s Republic Day parade, is also long overdue. It’s time to finally bring the India-Israel relationship out of the closet—for good.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He tweets @dhume.
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