As Israel and Hamas move toward an all-out war, India and Pakistan are watching developments in the greater Middle East with close interest. Both South Asian countries have been keen to leverage new initiatives to deepen Israel’s diplomatic and economic integration with the Persian Gulf region and beyond, viewing them as opportunities to fortify relations with Gulf Arab states and the United States.
But the prospects of a protracted, bloody conflict potentially directly involving Iran now bring the specter of war closer to South Asia and challenge the efforts of India and Pakistan to align with an Israeli-Saudi-Emirati-American axis.
India, Pakistan Respond to Hamas Attacks
In the wake of Saturday’s attacks by Hamas, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed “solidarity” with Israel, a reflection of growing security cooperation between the two countries and New Delhi’s shift away from support for the Palestinians.
Neighboring Pakistan also initially issued a relatively balanced statement, expressing concern about the potential “human cost of the escalating situation.” After a public outcry, Pakistan’s Caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani posted a statement on Sunday expressing Islamabad’s “solidarity” with the Palestinians.
The initial statement released by his office reflects the desire of Pakistan’s military-backed government to not close the door to normalization with Israel should the Saudis move in that direction. Pakistan is among the Muslim-majority states that are actively considering establishing relations with Israel if Saudi Arabia does the same. Since 2022, military-aligned commentators in Pakistan have publicly advocated recognizing Israel — a reflection of the behind-the-scenes discussions taking place within the Pakistan Army.
Hamas and Publics Hold Veto Power
Yet the public backlash in Pakistan against Islamabad’s initial response to the Hamas attacks, shows how public opinion in the broader Arab and Muslim world may end up being a key determining factor in whether more Muslim-majority states normalize with Israel.
A Washington Institute for Near East Policy survey conducted in March 2022 revealed that over 70 percent of Saudis and Emiratis had a negative view of the Abraham Accords, which established relations between Israel and two Gulf Arab states Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in September 2020.
Saudi Arabia’s response to the Hamas attacks — in which it attributed the outbreak in violence to the “continued occupation” and “deprivation of the Palestinian people” — reflects its leadership’s apprehension toward moving against domestic public opinion on this very sensitive issue.
The coming days and weeks will likely see an extraordinarily high civilian death toll in Gaza. For Saudi Arabia, the idea of normalization with Israel is on the back burner — for now. And the same goes for other Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan that were positioning themselves to follow suit.
While Israel is likely to end up prevailing in its military response, Hamas has demonstrated that it has a veto power when it comes to the region’s unfolding diplomatic alignments.
Public Opinion Works in Israel’s Favor in India
Though India and Israel have covertly partnered since at least the 1970s, the two countries only established formal diplomatic relations in 1992. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Indian National Congress-dominated governments actively supported the creation of a Palestinian state.
Since the 1990s, intelligence and security cooperation between India and Israel have grown. Israel has sold $2.7 billion in weapons to India since 2013 — including unarmed Heron drones used to surveil the air space above the disputed region of Kashmir.
This security cooperation grew under recent Indian National Congress governments. But the party continues to court the Muslim vote, which is heavily weighed in favor of the Palestinians. On Sunday, the Congress party condemned “the brutal attacks on the people of Israel” but also expressed support for the “legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.” Today, it called for a ceasefire and reiterated its “longstanding support for the rights of the Palestinian people.”
The opinions of India’s Muslims matter little for the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which runs on an explicitly anti-Muslim platform. The BJP’s ability to consolidate the Hindu vote across caste lines means it has little reason to court Muslim voters.
What the Conflict Means for South Asia
India will continue to grow ties with Israel bilaterally and through multilateral platforms, like the I2U2 Group, through which Israel, India, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates partner on issues like energy, water, and space.
But the newly proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor or IMEC — which is aimed at connecting Indian ports with Europe through a trans-Middle East land corridor including Israel and Saudi Arabia — will probably go on the back burner for now. In any event, the IMEC is, at the moment, a notional project contingent upon the commercial viability of producing blue and green hydrogen at scale.
India may find itself in a difficult position should the war between Israel and Hamas extend to Iran. While India has deepened cooperation with Israel, it has also maintained good relations with Iran. The two countries have long aligned on Afghanistan and their intelligence services partner vis-a-vis Pakistan. India is also part of another connectivity initiative with Russia using the Chabahar port in Iran.
There is also a risk that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) proxies in South Asia could attack Israeli interests in the region. In 2011, IRGC-linked operatives killed a Saudi military official in Karachi.
Finally, the eruption of a protracted, wider conflagration could put U.S. firepower inventories under further strain. Pakistan has been providing Ukraine with artillery shells through the U.S. and other Western intermediaries. These weapons transfers could grow and become even more important if Israel requires additional ammunition from the United States. Clearly, war can both create and close opportunities for states and non-state actors.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.