Israel's Gaza Venture Hits Chord in Wounded India

Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) — Israel hasn't won much praise for invading the Gaza Strip. This unpopularity abides even though Israel is bombing Gaza to stop Qassam rockets from hitting its own towns.

Still, Israel has at least some supporters in what might seem an unlikely place: India.

Not official support, mind you. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee rejected any comparison between the two countries in a recent television interview. But individual Indians have been speaking out in the press and on blogs about similarities between the missile attacks from Gaza and the November attack by terrorists who killed 164 people in Mumbai, India's financial capital.

Just as Iran backs Hamas in Gaza, many Indians suspect that Pakistan is behind the Mumbai attack. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said outright that Pakistani agencies were involved.

Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations undersecretary general, summed up the attitude in a recent Project Syndicate column on "India's Israel envy."

Tharoor writes, "As Israel demonstrates anew its determination to end attacks on its civilians by militants based in Hamas-controlled territory, many in India, still smarting from the horrors of the Mumbai attacks in November, have been asking: Why can't we do the same?"

In the space of the next few paragraphs, Tharoor ticks off the obvious answers to that question: Israel maintains a higher permanent state of alert and has less porous borders, while India faces, in Pakistan, an enemy that is a member of the nuclear-weapons club.

Krav Maga

Still, a growing mutual admiration between India and Israel is showing up at levels both commonplace and lofty. Krav Maga, a form of hand-to-hand combat taught by the Israeli Defense Forces, has become popular in India, the Hindustan Times reported this month.

This Israel-India link is a change. Born at the same time, the two nations at first stood out for their differences. Israel was a U.S. ally from the beginning. India irritated the U.S. by disingenuously establishing the non-aligned movement, and that irritation only deepened as Americans saw the advantage that Moscow took of Indian non-alignment.

Until the 1990s, New Delhi didn't welcome Israeli diplomats, so Israel had to content itself with a small outpost presence in Mumbai, then known as Bombay. "In Israeli diplomatic circles, Bombay is called the loneliest place in the world," Bernard Weinraub wrote in the New York Times in 1974.

India ignored Israel in the hope of scoring at least some points with Arab neighbors in its Pakistan conflict. Even South Vietnam was permitted diplomatic representation in New Delhi. Trade was negligible.

More in Common

Over the next decades, a shift commenced. India discerned that it had little to gain by keeping Israel at a distance, since Arab nations would surely back Pakistan over India regardless of the latter's policy on Jerusalem.

India began to feel that it had an enemy in common with Israel: fundamentalist Islam. Also, that international terror networks had, as Tharoor puts it, "added Indians to their target list of reviled 'Jews and crusaders.'"

Arms trade between India and Israel flourished. Israeli representatives came to New Delhi.

Some less obvious factors were also at work. India isn't especially rich in oil and minerals; Israel is a non-oil nation in a decidedly oily region. To grow, both countries therefore have had to become more entrepreneurial, to generate non-commodity wealth — in short, to innovate.

In Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, newly arrived Soviet Jews led the transition from the kibbutz and factory to high-tech ventures. With the end of the old bureaucratic system known as "license raj," India, too, placed new faith in tech and services.

Two Innovators

Led by Prime Minister Singh — at that time finance minister — India began to invent and create. Innovating Israel and innovating India were similar in a way that agricultural Israel and agricultural India had not been.

In a phone interview this week, Tharoor recalled that India became so comfortable with its trading profile that it unilaterally granted most-favored-nation status to Pakistan. Pakistan didn't reciprocate, creating "the only instance of a non-reciprocal free trade agreement one can think of," Tharoor says.

The old waterfront Gateway of India at Mumbai was an important symbol not only of Queen Victoria but also of India's tolerant, trading future. The result of this affinity of innovators has been a higher standard of living at home and expanding trade.

Trade Partners

In the past decade or so, the volume of nonmilitary trade between India and Israel grew from millions to billions, as measured in U.S. dollars. In December, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the news that an Indian-made battery-powered car, the Reva, was coming to the streets of Israel.

The Indian press has suggested that the Mumbai attack was all about punishing the new trading culture. The terrorists, after all, arrived in Mumbai via a jetty at that symbol of trade, the Gateway. And an Indian paper noted that one target in the Mumbai attack — the Chabad House Jewish center — may have been selected to send a message that there would be a specific penalty for India's commerce with Israel.

Still, as Tharoor notes, attacks on trading nations can backfire. Instead of halting exchange, such attacks can create new alliances of traders.

(Amity Shlaes, author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2009 Bloomberg

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