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Jewish immigration policy highlights strength of Israel-India relations

Even after the recent Copenhagen and Charlie Hebdo attacks, Benjamin Netanyahu's calls for European Jews to migrate en masse to Israel failed to garner much enthusiasm. Yet over the past decade, Shavei Israel, an organisation led by former Netanyahu aide Michael Freund, has facilitated the successful immigration of 1,700 Indian Jews who trace their roots to the Bnei Menashe, one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Jewish migration has always been a priority for the Likud-led government in order to boost the ethnic demographic in Israel. Indeed, Freund, quoted in Tablet Mag, stated that he believed "groups like the Bnei Menashe constitute a large, untapped demographic and spiritual reservoir for Israel and the Jewish people." Under Israel's Law of Return, Jewish migrants become Israeli citizens automatically; the Bnei Menashe, though, are not considered to be Jews according to Israeli law and so arrived on tourist visas. The immigration of these individuals from India was instead facilitated by an unprecedented vote by the government allowing them to enter Israel and undergo "conversion" upon arrival.

Haaretz has highlighted how the project involved questionable government decisions to boost the country's Jewish population. The project itself, according to the newspaper, was spearheaded by an individual who views Israel's Arab minority as a demographic threat. Indeed, many of the Indian migrants were resettled in the occupied West Bank or towns with a large Palestinian population.

The move also highlights the increasing economic, military and political cooperation between India and Israel over the past decade. Deputy spokesperson for the foreign ministry, Ilana Stein, issued a statement expressing delight "that the Bnei Menashe have come to Israel", suggesting that "bilateral relations between Israel and India are strong and healthy, and we are sure that they will not be negatively affected."

It marks a shift in India's policy with Israel, given the country's longstanding support for the Palestinian cause. India's pro-Palestinian stance began with M K Gandhi, who had little appetite for the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine. "It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs," he wrote. Affected by the partition of India, Gandhi opposed the creation of a state for the Jewish people. Out of principle, he was opposed to the creation of any state based on religion. Nehru, guided by solidarity with anti-colonial causes, remained ambivalent to the state of Israel. India's tradition of supporting Palestinian self-determination would continue late into the 20th century and it would vote against Israel frequently at the UN.

The situation has changed gradually, however, and India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. Since then there has been increasing cooperation in military and intelligence ventures between the two countries. Bilateral trade in that year alone amounted to $100 million and today tops over $5 billion.

India's shift in cooperation with Israel can be traced to the fall of the Soviet Union and the post 9/11 era, which changed the nature and importance of the policy of non-alignment. From India's perspective, it gained little from its support for Palestinian self-determination. It received little Arab support in the resolution of problems it faced in the region, such as in Kashmir, and against terrorist attacks by militant groups.

It was a shared concern for Pakistan's nuclear programme, like Iran's today, at the 1985 UN General Assembly that facilitated ties between the two states. Both Israel's and India's regional policies therefore paved the way for a strategic alliance. Bhairav Acharya, a legal analyst with the Centre for Internet and Society, believes that "India and Israel both imagine themselves as democracies under siege." Certainly, both see themselves as fighting off the threat of terrorism as the only strong democracies within the Middle East and South Asia.

Most recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim positions, has expressed his support for Israel repeatedly. Israeli embassy spokesman Ohad Horsandi reciprocated the commitment to a change in policy, in a statement to the Indian media: "Israel, India and other like-minded countries are facing terror threats from organisations with similar radical ideology." India's relationship with Israel is therefore tied to its own regional identity.

Last September Modi and Netanyahu met in New York to discuss bilateral ties during the UN General Assembly. Along with public appearances, India is increasingly willing to provide support for Israel at the UN. Indeed, Modi has also expressed support for Netanyahu's concern about a nuclear-armed Iran and has stopped buying Iranian crude oil.

Indian-Israeli cooperation has gone beyond a shared foreign policy into concrete agreements and joint ventures. India is Israel's largest customer for military equipment, having spent $9 billion on it since 1999.

In July 2012 the two countries signed an Extradition Treaty and a pact on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners. Two years later, in July 2014, the Indian government requested a number of Sword Fish ground radar trackers, precision-guided artillery, and other unspecified missiles. In October, both countries signed a $144 million deal for Barak I missiles and a $225 million deal to buy guided spike missiles used during Israel's Operation Protective Edge against the Gaza Strip last summer. Netanyahu also spoke of an Israeli cyber-defence project during his meeting with Modi and proposed bilateral cooperation in this area as well.

Indian-Israeli cooperation has certainly increased since the 2014 election of Prime Minister Modi. Netanyahu proposed that Israel and India coordinate in areas of technology, and in recent years India has been buying Israeli technology in areas of agriculture, water treatment, waste management and recycling. Israeli companies have expanded in India in these areas.

Strategic cooperation between India and Israel is representative of both countries' common interests in respect to regional positions. In their meeting in New York, Netanyahu spoke with Modi of the perceived global threat posed by Islamic terrorism. It is likely that this is just one of the justifications for the increase in defence cooperation between their countries. The resettlement of Indian Jews of the Bnei Menashe reflects another aspect of the policy of reciprocity as Israel-India relations get stronger.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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