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To a large number of Indians who want to see the country emerge as a “tough nation”, Israel is a ready role model. This is a country that has survived in the teeth of constant hostility, winning several wars against a united Arab force; and, as the legend goes, never gives in to hostage-takers, kidnappers and those who try and use ‘terror’ as a tool to marginalise it. Added to all this are accounts of its commando rescue operations in bestsellers like 90 minutes in Entebbe and incidents like that in Srinagar in June 1991, where five of six Israeli tourists escaped after managing to overpower their Kashmiri captors. Such events have bolstered its macho image and deepened Indians’ admiration.
But Israel’s popular image differs from its perceptions in Indian strategic and political thinking. The picture is a little more nuanced at the political level—especially between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. It is not without significance that despite Jewish insistence, India continues to describe the capital or political centre of Israel as Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem. However, at the same time, it is no coincidence either that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s private secretary, Sanjeev Shringla, has come to the PMO from India’s mission in Israel, while his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s private secretary, Joydeep Sarkar, was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Israel. Though few would publicise it, those in the political establishment here are well aware of Israel’s growing importance in India’s scheme of things.
Questions are being raised if under the Modi government India would follow a more pronounced pro-Israeli stance.
Though it doesn’t supply military ships, aircrafts or tanks, Israel is India’s second largest defence supplier. The cooperation between the two sides in high-tech weapons systems and other sophisticated technologies as well as in areas like irrigation and infrastructure, have been rapidly widening. Irrespective of their political affiliations, governments of different Indian states have reached out to Israel for investment and technological expertise. Bilateral trade, which was only a few million dollars a decade back, is today worth $6 billion and growing steadily.
“There is now bipartisan support in India for improving and deepening our ties with Israel without diluting our support for Palestine,” says former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.
However, this stand took several years to evolve, because Mahatma Gandhi’s 1939 statement, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense as England belongs to the English and France to the French,” remained the guiding principle both for the Congress as well as independent India. India’s recognition of Israel, which came into being in 1948, came only in 1950. But for more than four decades there was no diplomatic relations. Though this did not prevent various Indian governments from seeking, and getting, Israeli military help during the wars that India faced since 1962, such cooperation was always done away from the public glare.
It was only in January 29, 1992, that PM P.V. Narasimha Rao announced India’s decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Though this came as a surprise to most Indians, an indication came the month before, when in December 1991 India for the first time voted in favour of a UN resolution which called for the recognition of the Jewish state. The changed international environment that came about at the end of the Cold War and a split in the Arab world in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait allowed Rao the opportunity to bring about this major change in India’s foreign policy.
After establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992 under PM Rao, India-Israeli relations have accelerated.
Under subsequent Indian governments, the partnership between India and Israel deepened further. Today, it is one of India’s most important bilateral relations. However, one reason for that steady growth can be attributed to India’s ability to delink ties with Israel from the Middle East peace process.
There have been many occasions in the past where India has differed publicly with Israel, adopting a traditional, pro-Palestinian position.
However, questions are now being raised whether under the Narendra Modi government India would follow a more pronounced, and public, pro-Israeli stance. Apprehensions expressed by various political parties following the ruling party’s attempt to prevent a debate on Israel’s military campaign on Gaza, fearing parliamentary criticism of Israel, has somewhat died down with India’s vote (against Israel) at the UN Human Rights Commission yesterday. Mansingh feels this stand is not going to change any time soon.
But public demonstrations in support for Israeli action on Gaza by pro-Hindutva groups in New Delhi and elsewhere indicates the emergence of a new force openly proud of its admiration for Israel. Is it then just a matter of time before the new political dispensation in New Delhi also tears its veil and comes out in open support of Israel and its military solutions to deal with the Palestinians?