India and Israel in the New World Order

What does the future hold for India-Israel relations as India’s role as a great power in the Middle East grows?

By Dore Gold | | Topics: India
Relations between India and Israel have flourished for 30 years.
Relations between India and Israel have flourished for 30 years. Photo: Israeli Embassy in India

Amb. Dore Gold addressed India’s Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) on March 29, 2022. The following is an edited text of his remarks.

There is something groundbreaking about appearing at a conference like this. As a former Israeli senior diplomat, I think today we are fully engaged in the world system much more than we ever were before, and that’s a very positive development. It is also a positive development that our normalization agreements have emerged with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, with Sudan and with Morocco, and this is just the beginning and I hope it goes much further.

Several months ago, we had a visit to Jerusalem of the foreign minister of India, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. In the diplomatic protocol it’s a nice thing to provide some kind of gift which a senior politician can bring home with him. We have a section of my research institute which deals in old photographs and we found a photograph of Indian infantry coming into the gates of Jerusalem in 1917 with General Allenby, the commander of British forces, reviewing the entrance of these troops. They were unmistakably Indian; all of them wore turbans for their headgear.

The photographs shown here remind you of the pivotal Indian role in what you might call regional stability back at the time of the end of the First World War. So, I, of course, gave the foreign minister the photograph of the Indians entering Jerusalem. It made my point, and it turns out, of course, that India’s role across the Middle East region was huge. For that reason, I inserted photographs of Indian forces coming into Jerusalem, Baghdad and Damascus. We often call it the British Empire, but the role of India in stabilizing Mesopotamia, and in the agreements that the British viceroy in India had with the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, was critical.

Indian forces marching into Jerusalem, 1917. Field Marshal Allenby reviews the troops.

And the question that arises is, is India going to return to having a role? Is it going to be the same role? I doubt it, but it’s something one should be aware of because a role is a reflection of interests. Today in the Gulf region there’s a very large Indian community. In the millions. In 2019, there were roughly a million and a half Indian workers who had migrated to the Gulf, in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates alone. I’m sure Indian governments feel a sense of responsibility in protecting their citizens that will influence Indian policy in the years ahead.

Now it’s no secret that we in Israel have a difficult relationship with the Iranians, which we did not seek. But if you study the statements made by the Iranian leadership, you reach the conclusion that it has an extremely hostile attitude toward the State of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. And this requires us to prepare for what Iran may be doing. Everyone is talking about the Iranian nuclear program and the role of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). I don’t think the agreement ever addressed the program adequately.

There is also another side of the Iranian role in our region, which is Iran’s support for insurgency organizations, largely Shi’ite militias that have been active across the entire region.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the last JCPOA, from 2015, was that when sanctions were lifted from Iran, the money that became suddenly available for the Iranian treasury went to these insurgency organizations, and it led to an escalation of violence. It generated a surge in the number of organizations that were challenging the previous status quo. And of course, we had to deal with Hezbollah, we had to deal with Hamas, both of which received direct Iranian support.

Indian cavalry entering Damascus, 1918.

Our southern neighbors, the Saudis, had to cope with a huge escalation by the Houthi forces in Yemen, including missile and rocket attacks, not on military sites but on civilian sites, including the center of their capital, Riyadh. So, we have had enormous instability introduced, beginning in 2015, by Iranian-backed militias. And any resolution to the conflict in the Arabian Peninsula is going to have to address that challenge.

Now we do not have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, but we understand what they are facing because we face the same thing all the time in a different form, whether it comes from Hamas or in the past when it came from Hezbollah, so I’m hoping that our stabilization of the Middle East region will include an effort to come to some solution to this challenge that we all face.

Let me just say that this challenge is not just limited to the areas that border Israel. People often ask how is it that Morocco, which is off on the Atlantic Coast, became part of the Abraham Accords? The factual background of Moroccan participation in this alignment in the Middle East was that the Iranians were directly supporting the Polisario forces in the Western Sahara through the Iranian Embassy in Algiers. Therefore, Iran became identified by the Moroccans as a source of regional instability in North Africa.

Indian forces marching into Baghdad, 1917.

So, these are the regional circumstances that we all faced and we’re hoping that we can bring about a change in Iranian behavior, a change in the behavior of these various insurgency organizations, and with the stability that could result, we are hoping that we can create a different order for the Middle East.

With respect to India, India was already an emerging great power back at the time of World War I, even though we still had the shadow of the British Empire over us. And India’s role is growing as a great power in the Middle East, in the protection of Indian interests, not in the protection of Israeli interests or any other interests. So, these are the facts of what is going on now in our region and there is no way to avoid the reality of India’s very important role, which we respect. And we hope that through dialogue we can present each other with what we are learning about the risks to our vital interests that are becoming ever-evident in the current situation.

The Middle East has become much more complicated, but that doesn’t mean that we all have to pull back and not comment on how the region is evolving. I believe that the Middle East is obviously in some places very explosive and it requires that we talk about a new world order or a new regional order. There is a consensus among all of us that certain behavior of countries is unacceptable and certain behavior of countries should be promoted.

The problem we have with Iran is not because we want to impose ourselves on the region. It’s what we hear from our various partners in normalization. They face the same problem. They face a problem which might even be worse, because we have a very strong deterrence posture when Hezbollah operates against us. But other countries don’t necessarily, and that’s why I think we have to share our impressions.

I opened up a channel to a Saudi think tank in 2015. We met in Rome, Italy, and I laid out Hezbollah’s strategy to the Saudis. At first, they didn’t really want to hear about it, but over time they understood that this could be applied against them through the Houthis in Yemen, and that’s exactly what happened. So, what I am suggesting is that we have to draw this fundamental distinction in international diplomacy between countries that engage in aggression and countries that engage in defense.

And what we are finding is that the aggressors are still out there, the aggressors will undermine our stability and our security. If together we take a common position, we can limit the latitude of the aggressors to undermine us. That would make a great contribution to international stability, and I say that as a former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations.

I mentioned already that when I was engaged in diplomacy with Moroccans I discovered that Morocco faced a problem of Iranians who were using their relations with Algeria to undermine the security of the Moroccan kingdom, through the Western Sahara. Therefore, if we created this overarching concept of the Abraham Accords, it might help them because it would make the Iranian initiatives in the Western Sahara radioactive. That’s what we have to do.

China is a country with which we should have relations because it is a great power. A number of years ago, I was invited by the Central Committee of the Communist Party to give a series of lectures in Beijing, and I quickly understood the gap that was opening between Israel and China. The delegation I led also went to the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, where we spoke. My question at these meetings was very simple. If we are working hard to improve our bilateral relations, how come you don’t do anything in return? How is it, and I said that as a former ambassador to the United Nations, that you vote consistently for anti-Israel resolutions that have no basis in fact? And don’t you think you should try and improve that?

Well, the Chinese were not interested, of course, and I saw that we had a very big problem with them. We also know from our recent history that the Iranian nuclear program began with the transfer of Chinese technology to Iran. So, these are fundamental issues and I don’t see how we resolve them quickly. I think it’s important to again find allies and know who your allies are, and India is an ally of Israel, and we will respond to that special relationship in a special manner.

Iran is threatening to “wipe Israel off the map.” This has been repeated by the highest political echelons in Tehran and by senior military leaders like the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami. They put these statements on billboards which they feature in their military parades. The billboards are attached to missile carriers, which have surface-to-surface missiles, like the Shihab-3. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tehran has been investing in giving the Shihab-3 the capability to carry a nuclear warhead. In short, wiping Israel off the map is not just empty Iranian rhetoric; it is an operational concept.

Source: Iranian media.

Just stay strong, use deterrence and try to show understanding for the ideas of the other side? But I study Iranian statements. I put a group together in my think tank to study the fatwas that are coming from Iran with respect to the Jewish people, with respect to the State of Israel, and we have to understand who we’re dealing with.

Many of us believe that the Iranian people are ultimately friendly to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people. We even followed the doctrines of Shi’ite Islam. We have had very positive relations with Shi’ites in the past, for example, in southern Lebanon during the pre-state period. So, I don’t think that we want to paint all Shi’ites with the same paintbrush as hostile to us. I took an Israeli team a few years ago to Lucknow, a city with a huge Shi’ite presence, located in Uttar Pradesh.

These Indian Shi’ites were plainly not hostile to us. We were welcomed to Lucknow. We were greeted by a Shi’ite general who commanded Indian forces who were fighting jihadists in Kashmir. So where does the deep ideological antipathy of Shi’ite Iran to Israel come from? This hostility comes from Ayatollah Khamenei and his various doctrines which influenced an elite, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC). It presents a challenge to our security, it presents a challenge to the security of Bahrain, which Tehran has claimed is Iranian sovereign territory. It is also a problem for the United Arab Emirates since Iran occupied three of its islands. It has also posed a problem for Saudi Arabia and many other countries, where pro-Iranian militias have been active.

INS Vikrant, part of a growing force of carriers that are making the Indian Navy into a blue-water fleet. Credit: Indian Navy.

There are the beginnings of structural changes to the world order that should be noted already. On July 14, 2022, the heads of government of India, Israel, the UAE and the United States formed the I2U2 group to work together on clean energy and food security. They also spoke about new initiatives in regional cooperation. These multilateral bodies are not going to replace the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but they will have a greater role in world politics and economics in the future.

A few years ago, I had to have eye surgery, and I went to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem to have that done. My doctor was a Palestinian Arab from Irbid who had been trained in Jordan. The eye is the most sensitive part of your body. If you think of where you’re going to have surgery, do you want to really have your eye operated on by someone who belongs to a national grouping that might be hostile to you? Going ahead with the surgery shows the confidence that we really have developed in each other.

If you go to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and you go to the emergency room—and when you come to Israel I’ll take you there personally—you will see Arab doctors taking care of Jewish patients and Jewish doctors taking care of Arab patients. In apartheid South Africa there were separate hospitals for different races. That is not the case in Israel. Thus, those who use the word “apartheid” against Israel may be very fashionable at Berkeley, Amherst, or Cambridge, but they are totally distorting the reality in which we live, and my eyes attest to that. So, I ask you to study the issue before you make statements about it.

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Previously he served as foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999), and as an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon..

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 


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