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Estimating India’s New Middle East Strategy

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By Kadira Pethiyagoda

Much of the commentary on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unprecedentedly pro-Israel response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack has overestimated the extent of deviation from India’s traditionally nonaligned and slow-evolving Middle East policy. Modi’s response came after the largest attack on Israel in decades and was made prior to major Israeli retaliation. Furthermore, soon after Modi’s initial statement, and later through its external affairs minister, India issued more balanced statements, reiterating its support for the two-state solution and pledging humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Some observers, including Kabir Taneja, who wrote in Foreign Policy last month, have couched India’s response to the Israel-Hamas conflict as part of a new Middle East strategy—one that indicates a slow shift toward Washington and away from nonalignment. However, India’s rise may prevent it from espousing an overtly pro-Israel stance over the long term.

New Delhi’s overarching strategic vision, held by the public, most political leaders, and the permanent foreign-policy establishment (civil servants, influential think tanks, etc.) is that of a multipolar world order, in which India is one of the poles. This will eventually necessitate that it engage with the Israel-Palestine crisis not as a South Asian regional power, but as a great power.

Policymakers in Washington should pay more attention to this vision if they do not want to be caught off guard, as they were in relation to India’s position on Ukraine.

Modi’s recent support for Israel symbolizes a strain of thinking within Indian foreign policy that sees the Middle East through the prism of South Asian politics (i.e., regional tensions with Pakistan), security threats such as terrorism, and past approaches to Islamist militancy. The public messaging of this viewpoint, simply put, is this: Israel fights Islamic militants, and so does India; therefore, we should be allies.

Other justifications for the so-called bromance between Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cite support for a muscular foreign policy or a dominant role for religion in society. However, these arguments are insufficient when considered alone. (Otherwise, we would see Modi gravitating toward China or Saudi Arabia, for instance.)

For India, engaging with the Israel-Hamas conflict as a great power entails viewing the situation in terms of how it impacts India’s long-term national and global interests and goals. In the Middle East, this entails protecting New Delhi’s economic interests, securing uninterrupted access to energy, and reducing the risk of future disruptions and threats (such as the war in Iraq, interventions in Libya and Syria, and sanctions on Iran). Realizing this means expanding New Delhi’s strategic power in relation to both the current hegemon—the United States—and regional powers.

A definitively pro-Israel position undermines these objectives in the short term if the conflict expands and draws in other powers, and in the long term even if it does not. Such a stance limits New Delhi’s ability to increase its influence and leverage over regional powers and the United States.

Taneja links India’s position on Israel and its relations with the United States to the Abraham Accords; the resultant I2U2 minilateral comprising India, the United States, Israel, and United Arab Emirates; and the proposed rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative: the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC). However, as the more strategically focused Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) has shown, India’s memberships in such groups and initiatives, while building trust and strengthening the country’s image among the publics of partner states, only serve as tools to be used to the extent they further the country’s own interests and are set aside when they do not. They do little to alter strategic and economic interests and objectives.

For example, when it came to India’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, India’s membership in the Quad did not bring New Delhi closer to Washington’s position. Rather, it prevented the Quad from issuing a joint condemnation of Russia’s invasion. Sovereignty exists on a continuum, and states with a high degree of freedom of action, such as India and the United States, will conform to geopolitical norms only to the extent that it serves them.

Taneja correctly identifies India’s shift toward a more adventurous foreign policy. This will not, however, necessarily lead to alignment with Washington. And when applied in conjunction with Delhi’s central aim of becoming a great power, a more assertive foreign policy leads to increasing divergence from the United States.

With great-power influence in the Middle East being a zero-sum game, the weaker the hegemon, the bigger the possibility for new powers, such as India, to increase influence. The IMEEC will therefore be viewed as a double-edged sword. If successful, it may assist India by slowing China’s economic ascendance in the region, but could also reinforce Washington’s dominance. From a strategic perspective, as a rising power, India has more to gain from weakening the hegemon than from weakening the number two, China.

With Washington having struggled to persuade non-Western states to isolate Russia and debilitate its economy, and NATO-backed Ukraine now possibly facing defeat or stalemate, the U.S. government is arguably at its weakest point relative to its rivals since the Cold War. If India maintains a firmly pro-Israel stance, like its Western allies, this would reinforce U.S. primacy in the Middle East, strengthening the hegemon and slowing the pace of change. It would also inhibit India from positioning itself as a serious alternative to Washington.

In Asia, receding U.S. influence facilitates a level of Chinese power that can threaten India, including by Beijing potentially encroaching on India’s core sphere of influence. This is not the case with the Middle East. Here, the risks of having to compete with a slightly more influential Beijing are outweighed by the aforementioned benefits, combined with the reduced risk of destabilizing regime-change operations in the Middle East by the West. The latter have occurred more frequently during the unipolar era. A multipolar Middle East would mean that each great power’s actions are more inhibited by other great powers.

Arab states’ policy toward Israel and Palestinians  is largely the product of balancing three factors: U.S. influence, Israel’s relative military strength, and the views of their own populations. The first two have weakened in the past decade, while the latter is progressing toward a boiling point.

As a result, the trend of normalization of relations with Israel that began under former U.S. President Donald Trump has been halted and is unlikely to restart. For instance, the UAE had sold its normalization of relations as something done partly in exchange for better treatment of the Palestinians (namely, Israel  ceasing its annexation of the West Bank), which is something that’s very difficult to now paint as a success.

Maintaining a either neutral, international law-based or unpredictable position on the Israel-Palestine conflict thus better serves India in strengthening its influence in the region. Appealing to Muslim and Arab states in this way will also provide significant diplomatic goodwill required in international forums where issues such as the Kashmir conflict are raised.

India will also likely draw lessons from the behavior of the three more established great powers—the United States, China, and Russia. These nations see the Israel-Hamas conflict more in terms of their long-term global agendas than regional concerns or any past approach to Islamist militancy. Washington, which backed Islamist rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s and more recently, to varying degrees, in Syria and Libya, nevertheless provides military and diplomatic cover for Israel, in part because it helps advance broader U.S. interests.

China and Russia, despite each having combated domestic Islamist militancy and, in Russia’s case, actively waged war against it on behalf of Syria’s government, take a neutral-to-pro-Palestinian stance, to a significant degree because it helps weaken U.S. dominance. And in spite of these long-standing positions, both have still managed to derive benefits from Israel, with Israel  transferring military technology to China and taking a more neutral stand on Ukraine than any other Western ally.

Similarly, India’s arms trade with Israel is unlikely to cease due to a more neutral or even pro-Palestinian position. This is because Delhi has more leverage in the relationship than Israel—India accounts for 46 percent of Israel’s weapons exports; as the exporter, Israel is the one making the profit. More broadly, the growing military sophistication of players such as Iran, Syria, and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, combined with the Shiite-Sunni détente, indicate that not only the United States’, but also Israel’s strategic power—relative to their rivals—is on the decline.

The war in Ukraine and the latest iteration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict signify seismic shifts in the world order. That order is buckling under the weight of rising titans staking their claim over global power and influence. India’s foreign-policy establishment will be increasingly mindful of this and may see that taking advantage of the moment requires an altered approach to Israel, especially if the conflict expands.

If the Modi administration fails to capitalize on this opportunity, India’s democracy and power structures may eventually yield political actors who do. Hindu-Muslim animosity is likely seeing its long-term peak over this decade and, as seen in other Asian states, economic development and growing education levels will mean that future politicians enjoy diminishing returns from stoking communal tensions and repeating the tough-on-terror rhetoric that is often coupled with pro-Israel talking points.

The core of Modi’s appeal was never merely animosity to the religion of Islam, but rather the Indian people’s belief in the nation’s civilizational greatness and repudiation of centuries of humiliation. That public is acutely aware that this humiliation came not only at the hand of the Muslim Mughals, but also via the British—something that Western policymakers should note.

Crucially, a new generation of leaders may see India less as a victim of cross-border terrorism in an unending tussle with regional rival Pakistan, and more as a peer and competitor to the world’s most powerful states—and a player at the highest table. If Washington is to handle this more successfully than it handled India’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war, it should not expect India’s support for Israel to be an ever-growing, or even ever-present, phenomenon.


Kadira Pethiyagoda is an expert on India-Middle East relations and the author of Indian Foreign Policy and Cultural Values.


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