This week marks 14 years since the Mumbai terror attacks. Between November 26 and 29, 2008, operatives of the Islamist Lashkar a-Taiba organization struck at 12 sites across the city of Mumbai. Among the locations targeted was the Nariman House, host to a Chabad center. Rabbi Gabriel Holzberg and his wife Rivka, who was six months pregnant at the time of the attack, were murdered along with four other hostages.
The attackers were later neutralized after an Indian special police squad stormed the building. Famously, Sandra Samuel, a local caregiver employed at the Chabad House, rescued the Holzbergs' two-year-old son, Moshe, and carried him to safety from the building.
The events at Mumbai in 2008 have become emblematic of the growing bond between Israel and India, which may now be described as a strategic alliance. In July 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel, the first visit by an Indian head of government. During the visit, Modi met with Moshe Holzberg. In January 2019, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was joined by Holzberg and Samuel on a visit to Mumbai.
The commonality that was expressed in the harshest terms by Lashkar a-Taiba's choice of targets in November 2008 has flourished in the intervening years. In the area of defense and security, India is now the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment, with exports to India constituting 46% of Israel's total arms exports. Israel is the second largest supplier of military equipment to India after Russia, New Delhi's traditional armorer.
India-Israel ties expand into agriculture, tech
The burgeoning relations are not limited to the defense sphere. In the area of agriculture and water management, Indian authorities have partnered with Mashav, Israel's international development organization, to develop methods to cope with an emergent water crisis.
Investments in the tech field are of growing significance, with Teva Pharmaceuticals among the most notable players. The acquisition by the Adani group of Haifa port is perhaps the most significant recent development in the commercial field.
And so on. The evidence for the deepening connections between Jerusalem and New Delhi in a myriad variety of fields is inescapable. An interesting question concerns the foundations of this edifice.
What are the considerations and factors that have brought about the spiraling in relations in recent years?
In this regard, two areas are most worthy of consideration. The first is the area of geopolitics and strategy. The second is the cultural-political sphere. The grounding of the alliance in civil society and public sentiment is also important.
REGARDING THE first, India and Israel face a common challenge as Western-aligned states at a time when the US, the leader of the democratic world, is in a process of recalibrating and reducing its external commitments. There is a consequent need for the establishment of structures enabling long-term strategic cooperation between regional powers. The formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August 2020 paved the way for an emergent three-way alliance between Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi and New Delhi.
In an influential essay published by the Middle East Institute in July 2021, Egyptian-born strategic thinker Mohammed Soliman posited the emergence of what he termed an "Indo-Abrahamic Alliance," bringing together the UAE, Israel and India. This alliance, Soliman suggested, would form the basis for a "new trans-regional order" in West and South Asia.
The emergence of this alliance, Soliman suggested, would fill the potential vacuum left by a necessary American shift to focus on east Asia. The alliance would be based on deepening formalized cooperation in such crucial areas as maritime security in the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, missile defense, drones, common opposition to Islamist extremism, and data security.
India's close relations with the UAE have long been based on petroleum exports and remittances from a large Indian population working in the UAE. In recent years, non-oil bilateral trade has sharply increased, with the UAE now India's third-largest trade partner. Israel's trade relations with the UAE, of course, have flourished since the signing of the Abraham Accords, with a free-trade deal signed in May 2022.
This emergent three-way alliance is based also on the presence of a rival alignment currently crystallizing – namely, that of Turkey and Pakistan. While efforts at rapprochement with Ankara on the part of the UAE and Israel are currently underway, the deeper orientations and ambitions of Ankara, at least for as long as the Islamist AKP remains the governing party, are likely to prevent a major change in this picture.
The establishment under US auspices of the "I2U2" group, in July 2022, formalizes and solidifies the strategic partnership between India, Israel and the UAE. Indian commentator Harshil Mehta described the I2U2 as a "platform for the 21st century, driven by economic pragmatism, multilateral cooperation and strategic autonomy." Mohammed Soliman has expressed the hope that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia will eventually form part of this structure, which in turn will be the basis for a new, autonomous but Western-aligned security order in Asia.
The second foundation of the India-Israel strategic alliance derives from the cultural-political sphere. At the most basic level, it is a geographic fact that the two countries are located precisely at the eastern and western edges of the Islamic world. Both are based on ancient civilizations, revived into sovereignty at the moment of, and as a result of, the decline of European, specifically British colonialism in the post-1945 period. Both, indeed, were born in struggle against the retreating British Empire. And both were engaged in wars of defense during their founding decades against their neighboring Islamic states.
But beyond these general points, the specific and fascinating commonality derives from comparable internal political trajectories. Both countries were led during the struggle for sovereignty and in subsequent decades by a westernized, secular and social democratic elite. The movements in question became categorized in later years by a degree of corruption and estrangement from the orientations and desires of the populations over which they ruled.
Both have been replaced in recent decades by parties descended from alternative conceptions of the nation that were present during the pre-state periods of struggle. These have remained during the early years of statehood as alternative frameworks, and have now become dominant.
In both cases, the formerly subaltern and now dominant orientations are characterized by a more particularist conception of the nation, with a greater place given to religious tradition and observance, and a heritage of militancy.
The strategic partnership between India and Israel appears well-anchored at the public level. A poll conducted by Israel's Foreign Ministry in 2009 found that 58% of Indians declared themselves supporters of Israel. Similar levels of warmth and support may easily be discerned on the Israeli side.
Shared geopolitical interests, a common political and cultural trajectory, and high levels of mutual support at the civil society level constitute the foundations of the relationship. This commonality was expressed at the starkest level in the events in Mumbai between November 26-28, 2008. In the intervening years, it has burgeoned and deepened in a variety of complementary directions. What Mohammed Soliman termed the "Indo-Abrahamic Alliance" continues to gather pace.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.