In the early decades of the Republic, Israel was a pariah as far as official India was concerned. There were no diplomatic contacts, the non-aligned India during the Cold War was openly hostile towards Israel and openly supportive of the Palestine cause. Left-liberal ideology that informed the conduct of Indian foreign policy sanctioned no-truck with Israel.
The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the sole super power in America vitally changed the global geopolitical situation. India could not have remained oblivious to the strategic shift in power equations globally. It was left to the first pragmatic Congress Prime Minister P V Narasmiha Rao to establish full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel. In January 1992, India opened its embassy in Tel Aviv.
Significantly, Israel had all along extended a hand of friendship to India which the latter spurned most cavalierly, partly because of the sizable Muslim population at home which remains viscerally hostile to the Zionist nation and which tended to vote en bloc for the Congress Party. Equally significantly, all through the years when Israel was treated an untouchable, it was the Jana Sangh, BJP’s predecessor, which called for establishing close relations with Israel.
It was during the tenure of A B Vajpayee as foreign minister in the first Janata Party government that a high-level government delegation from Israel paid an official visit to this country. Notably, India’s squeamishness in establishing diplomatic ties with Israel seemed odd particularly when several Muslim nations were not-so-secretly doing business with it. Besides, India had much to gain from Israel’s superior skills and technologies in diverse fields. Fortunately, the full potential of Indo-Israel ties has begun to be realised since the advent of the Modi Government in 2014.
Earlier, as Home Minister in the Vajpayee Government, L K Advani had led a high-level delegation to Israel in 2000 as did Jaswant Singh as Foreign Minister. In both cases, the two dignitaries had sought to balance the symbolism by pointedly combining a visit to the Palestinian territories as well. Even President Pranab Mukherjee, in 2015, visited Israel, he took care to visit the areas under the control of the Palestine Authority also. But, not so Prime Minister Modi. Last year when he paid a highly-publicised visit to Israel, with ‘jappi-puffi’ on full display with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he riled the traditional foreign office voices by skipping a visit to Palestine altogether. Only Modi could be so forthright in making a foreign policy departure.
Of course, the PM did not have to be overly mindful of the sensitivities of the well-entrenched foreign policy establishment and the large Muslim minority at home which has all along harboured anti-Israel feelings, with the cause of the Palestine providing a fig leaf for their prejudiced world-view. Given that over the years, Israel has served well the cause of India, whether it was at the height of the Kargil war when it rushed strategic weapons needed to push back the aggressors, or in modernizing water preservation and urban waste management processes, and upgrading water-use technologies in the farm sector or in providing vital R and D in modern weaponry, Israel has eagerly come forward.
Being a key player in defense R and D and in artificial intelligence, India has a lot to gain from closer ties with Israel. Above all, India has a lot to learn from Israel, which faces existentialist threat 24×7 from jihadi groups in the region and beyond, in tackling ISI-inspired terror. Given that both Moscow and Egypt, China and Saudi Arabia maintain friendly ties, overt and covert, India has no reason to be on the defensive in warming up to people who have survived and prospered as a democracy in the face of public threats by organised groups to annihilate it from the face of the earth. India’s security establishment can only gain from closer cooperation with Israel while the potential for the private sector to grow businesses remains largely untapped.
Therefore, the red-carpet welcome for Netanyahu on his six-day visit to India, which will take him, besides the national capital to Ahmedabad, Mumbai, etc., is most appropriate. Modi broke protocol to personally greet Netanyahu at the Delhi airport last Sunday. Such warm hospitality for the Israel PM underscores a complete break with the past when India shunned Israel’s friendship on ideological grounds. It is significant that though recently India voted in the UN General Assembly against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, this did not cast a shadow on Netanyahu’s visit. Mature ties between nations are not threatened by twists and turns necessary to negotiate geopolitics. Both Israel and India are on course to further expand the relationship and grow the annual $ five billion trade.