By Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
India and Israel were born as independent nations within nine months of each other in 1947 and 1948. Partition was a common feature of their creation, as modern nation states. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel and joined the United Nations. Then American President Harry S. Truman recognised the new nation on the same day.
The USA had supported the British initiative of 1917, which called for the establishment of a Jewish national home in, an initiative which became known as the Balfour Declaration (Arthur Balfour was then the British Foreign Secretary). Britain, responsible for the mandate of Palestine, until May 1948, later went on to oppose both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. Arab and Muslim countries never reconciled to the Jewish state in the heart of Arab lands and had to struggle for recognition by the international community.
Arguing for a composite State, wherein Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish people would live side by side in a secular State, India had voted against the United Nations’ partition plan for Palestine. India’s vote was overruled by a majority vote approving the creation of Israel and Palestine as two independent States. (The Partition Plan got a two-thirds majority: the vote was 33 for and 13 against, with 10 states – including the UK – abstaining.)
Eventually, on September 17, 1950, India officially recognised the State of Israel, though India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. It was Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who approved the diplomatic opening to Israel, though it is under BJP-led governments that ties with Israel have received that extra fillip. Israel maintained a Consulate in Mumbai (the old Jewish Agency Office opened during the British Raj) which became the conduit for official exchanges and helped members of the Indian Jewish community to migrate to Israel.
Destiny and the cycle of history have brought India and Israel closer today than ever before. Israel has come a long way, leaving behind the complicated history of its creation and the turbulent years that followed which saw three Arab-Israeli wars. India too has discarded the baggage of history and the apprehension of vote-bank sensitive Indian politicians seems to have receded, as national interests of India and Israel have steadily converged over the decades. The burgeoning ties with Israel has not prevented India from reiterating its public support for the State of Palestine and exhorting both sides to negotiate a peaceful settlement, based on a two-State solution and secure borders. While this remains the official position of every Indian government, there is no hesitation in engaging with Israel publicly.
Currently, Israel is not under pressure on the Palestinian issue. Nor does it see a full-fledged Palestinian State as conducive to its long term security interest. Some issues, like the status of Jerusalem and return of refugees just cannot be solved, given the rigid positions on both sides. The current Israeli government, led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, belongs to the hard line Likud Party in coalition with conservative Jewish parties, in no mood for any compromise. With the West Asian region torn apart by civil wars raging in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and the rise of “Daesh” or the Islamic State, international attention has been deflected away from the Palestinian issue. Israel, therefore, is under minimal international pressure to reach any compromise with the Palestinians.
The only pressure that counts on Israel is American pressure and the Israelis have successfully neutralised pressure from the outgoing Obama government. The Trump Presidency will be aggressively pro-Israel. The Palestinians are also hopelessly divided between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas in Gaza. The turmoil in the region and the acute rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has forced a convergence of interest between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hence, Arab hostility towards Israel has mitigated somewhat, as geo-strategic competition between regional powers has grown.
The recent visit of Israeli President Reuvan Rivlin to India, last November, marks the maturing of India-Israel ties that have gradually blossomed, over the years. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Israel in January 2016 and there has been an increase in the frequency of high level visits between the two countries, after the PM Modi’s government took office. It is widely expected that PM Modi may undertake the historic first visit by an Indian PM to Israel in 2017, when the two countries celebrate 25 years of diplomatic ties.
Israel, has on the other hand, has never wavered in its conviction, since the era of its first PM David Ben Gurion that India and Israel will ultimately be close friends. Ben Gurion and Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru exchanged correspondence regularly. Recognising that India’s support would be crucial to win support of other nations, as the process of de-colonisation gathered momentum and new independent States emerged in Asia and Africa, Israel worked overtime to convince a skeptical India to recognise the fledgling Jewish State. The Israeli leadership even roped in Albert Einstein, arguably the most famous member of the global Jewish community, to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru. Even Einstein could not convince Nehru, despite the latter’s deep admiration for the great scientist.
The growing reality today is that India-Israel ties have expanded steadily, encompassing sensitive areas like High Technology products, Defence equipment, Security, Intelligence, Agriculture, Water Management, Pharmaceuticals etc. Joint production and development of key defence items has emerged as an important domain of cooperation. Israel is today the 3rd largest source of key defence equipment for India. Israel has doggedly pursued its courting of India over the years, particularly at times when India needed critical defence supplies during conflicts with Pakistan, when other sources of supplies were not available quickly.
While India has reciprocated, she has tried to keep these growing ties off the radar screen. The reasons remain the same – ties with Arab and Islamic countries. There are, however, continuing worries about the stalled Free Trade Agreement, supply of Israeli armaments to China, boorish and arrogant behaviour by some Israeli tourists in India. Today, however, bilateral ties are no longer hostage to ties with other. Ties with Israel have broad bipartisan support in Indian politics. India’s dilemma becomes more acute when Israel cracks down on Palestinians. Israel’s iron-fist approach to Palestinian violence and confiscation of their lands promotes sympathy in India and anti-Israel feelings among Indian Muslims who are quick to demonstrate their sympathy for Palestinians. Strangely, Indian Muslims remain silent, when Hindus are regularly oppressed and persecuted in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Closer ties with Israel has gone hand in hand with closer ties with Iran and the Arab countries of the Gulf. Regular exchange of high level visits led to the decision to invite the UAE Crown Prince as the Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day in 2017. PM Modi sought out and met Israeli PM Netanyahu, during his visits abroad for multilateral meetings. There is no either/or choice and India will pursue closer ties with the Arab/Islamic countries and Israel. There is no pressure on India to make this choice. While Presidential visits have occurred, an Israeli PM has visited India. But no Indian PM has ever visited Israel. The stage is being set for PM Modi to make a historic visit to Israel, sometime in 2017 and become the first Indian PM to break this jinx.