Shortly after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru received a letter from Albert Einstein. It was a request, ahead of a crucial vote in the UN, for India’s support for a resolution proposing the partition of Palestine. It was one of India’s first foreign policy challenges, apart from Pakistan and apartheid. Nehru answered that India could not support this and cited reasons of national interest.
Those days seem to be a distant memory these days. With diplomatic ties established on January 29, 1992, nearly a quarter century ago, India has become Israel's partner in many areas. The first fruits of this relationship were available during the Kargil war, when Israel provided prompt and generous help with technology and equipment supplies that proved critical in dislodging the Pakistani intruders.
In 2000, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Israel, the first Indian visits at that level since the establishment of ties eight years earlier. That same year, Jyoti Basu, then the tallest leader of the Left in India, and Najma Heptullah, the Deputy Chairperson of Rajya Sabha who was then with the opposition Congress, travelled to Israel.
Bilateral defence and security cooperation picked up after the 2000 visits, and in September 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Prime Minister of Israel to visit India. Palestinian suicide bombers struck at two places in Tel Aviv while Sharon was in India, and he cut short the visit, skipping the scheduled Mumbai leg. Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid told journalists in Delhi that the “very reason that brought us to India is responsible for the cutting short of the visit: Terror”.
Lapid also provided the first official confirmation from either side of the defence ties between the countries: “We have the closest ties in defence,” he said. “We are the second largest supplier (of weapons) to India.”
In a year’s time, however, the UPA government came to power, and much of the transactions and dealings with Israel were “brushed under the carpet”, and the relationship was moved “behind closed doors”. The Congress-led governments were sensitive towards the “sentiments of minorities”, and chose to not talk about the relationship for the next 10 years. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna did visit Israel in 2012 — but the focus, publicly at least, was mostly on cooperation in science and technology, agriculture and commerce, not defence and security.
The Narendra Modi government has brought the relationship out of the bag again, and public re-engagement on strategic areas has re-started. The PM met his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2014. In February 2015, Moshe Ya’alon, the first Israeli Defence Minister to visit India, spoke openly of bilateral defence cooperation.
The Indian side’s calibrated position at the UN on the resolution condemning Israel, where New Delhi abstained, was a shift in India’s approach. Then came President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Palestine and Israel in October 2015. However, as part of the diplomatic balancing act — after landing at Ben-Gurion airport, Mukherjee headed first to Palestine, before returning to Israel.
Now Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is going to travel to Palestine and Israel on January 17-18. It will be the third foreign ministerial visit to Israel since 1992. According to published reports, this year 2016 is expected to be the breakout year for India’s relationship with Israel, when it is likely to finally come out of the closet. No more pretensions!
What a sad turn around for a country that was once touted as a leader of the non-alliance movement in our world! Hindutvadi forces in India have found there natural allies among the hard-core Zionists that are bent on keeping the apartheid character of Israel.
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