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August 01, 2017 Tuesday 12:22:49 PM IST

Israel Strikes a Cordial Note

Expert Counsel

The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel at the beginning of this month is the most significant diplomatic move since his government took office three years ago. This was the first time that an Indian Prime Minister had visited Israel since that nation came into existence in 1948. The fact that this was a return visit, made after 14 years, for the one undertaken by Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon in 2003, underlines the sensitivity of the subject in both domestic and international politics.


The present day State of Israel is the result of a nearly five-decade long struggle of Jews for establishing a home for themselves in their holy land, under the banner of Zionist movement. This movement itself was the consequence of massive repression and atrocities carried out against Jews in most nations of Europe. The principles of Zionism and its objective of forming a nation state for Jews were first articulated by Theodor Herzl in his work Der Judenstaat, published in 1896. The two waves of migration of Jews to the Middle East that had taken place around the turn of the 20th century gave them a small toehold in Palestine and nearby areas.


The Zionist movement received a fillip when Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, announced in 1917 that it was their intention to create a State for Jews within Palestine Mandate. However, these words were not followed by action on the ground as Britain was sensitive towards feelings of the Arab world in this matter.


The Second World War and the atrocities committed against Jews by the Nazis generated a wave of sympathy in their favor, particularly in the United States of America. The issue of rehabilitating thousands of Jews, who had been displaced during the War and survived the Nazi concentration camps, lent a sense of urgency to the cause of Zionism. In these circumstances, despite opposition from Britain and the entire Arab world, David Ben Gurion announced the establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. Though the newly founded nation was attacked by the armies of four Arab nations -- Trans Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq -- immediately thereafter, it emerged unscathed with all its territories intact. Following this, Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations in May 1949, thus lending it legitimacy in the comity of nations.


India recognised this new State in 1950 and Israel opened a Consulate in Mumbai in 1953. However, India stopped short of granting full diplomatic status, mainly owing to domestic considerations. The close links with the Arab world, on which India depended for oil and other energy needs, were the most important factor that influenced India’s stand. Further, India’s good relations with Arabian countries were not solely for meeting their requirement of oil and other fuels.


These countries in the Middle East employed the largest number of expatriate Indians, who contributed to the growth of national economy through remittances of foreign currency. India had also identified herself with the cause of independent Palestine and Indian leaders, in particular Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, had developed close personal friendship with Yasser Arafat, the leader of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). During the Cold War years, India had leaned more towards the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) camp, despite her commitment towards the Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) and this went against aligning with Israel, given the close relations between that country and the USA. Finally, there was also the feeling amongst the decision makers that the substantial Muslim population in India might feel offended if close ties were developed with Israel.


It was only in 1992, after the collapse of the USSR and the commencement of the process of economic liberalisation that India granted full diplomatic status to Israel. However, even while doing so, India was careful to take the PLO and its leader into confidence and continued to be considerate to the feelings of the Arab countries. It is to the credit of India’s political leadership and diplomatic corps that this could be accomplished without creating any difficulties or ruffling any feathers.


India’s relations with Israel grew stronger after grant of diplomatic status. The fact that both countries are functional parliamentary democracies helped this process. A common area of concern for both the countries is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which has helped to promote cooperation in the areas of defence and national security as well as sharing of inputs between intelligence and enforcement  agencies.


When economic sanctions were imposed and an embargo placed on supply of defence equipment to India, following testing of nuclear weapons in 1998, Israel helped us by making available the required defence hardware. During the short war with Pakistan over Kargil in 1999, Israeli assistance was of critical importance for evicting the enemy infiltrators from the areas that they had occupied. It was in acknowledgment of this cooperation that L.K. Advani, Deputy Prime Minster of India, visited Tel Aviv in 2000, which was followed by the visit of Premier Ariel Sharon in 2003. President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in 2015 and addressed Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. A special feature of this relationship has been that even during the period between 2004 and 2014, when bilateral visits by national leaders were few and far between, there flourished areas of cooperation between various state governments of India and Israel in areas such as water management and agriculture.


Thus, it can be seen that though both India and Israel came into existence as nation states at approximately the same period of time and they share many common principles as well as concerns, bilateral relationship has not evolved into close friendship. The visit of Indian Prime Minister marks a tectonic change in India’s approach. The signing of agreements towards closer economic cooperation and commencement of talks for concluding a free trade agreement sends home the message that the relationship is all set to move to the next higher level. Flow of investments and easier movement of people between the two countries would result from these developments and help to foster closer people to people interactions.


The further evolution of this relationship would be watched closely by not only the international community but by domestic observers as well, to study its fallout and implications. Indian diplomatic establishment has made it clear that closer friendship with Israel would not be at the cost of disrupting the support for the cause of Palestinians; nor would it involve any change in the prevailing warm relations with the Arab nations. Similarly, in the domestic arena also there would be the pressing requirement to show that there is no ideological shift when it comes to the core principles of the Indian state, and cooperation is solely for national benefit.

It is an accepted fact that geostrategic interests and domestic politics play a big role in determining the foreign policy of all nations. The more important aspect to be borne in mind is acknowledging the reality that international politics is a dynamic concept where there are no permanent friends or foes. Prevailing national interests alone should determine the focus and thrust of the policy. India’s Israel policy reflects a deep appreciation of this Realpolitik, where practical considerations triumph over principles, ideologies and moralities.