Indian PM’s Israel visit is set to make history

It was only 25 years ago that the two countries established full diplomatic ties.

June 29, 2017 10:49

Narendra Modi will next week become the first Indian prime minister ever to set foot on Israeli soil. The significance of this visit cannot be overstated.

It was only 25 years ago that the two countries established full diplomatic ties. Before that, India used to be called the “loneliest post in the world” for Israeli diplomats, their presence in the country restricted to a consular office in Mumbai. India had no presence at all in Israel.

Having voted against the creation of the Jewish state at the United Nations in 1947, India held back from establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992.

In the intervening years, India voted with the majority at the UN to pass resolution 3379, which condemned Zionism as a form of racism; became one of the first non-Arab states to recognise Palestine’s declaration of independence in 1988; and was generally among the most vocal non-Arab voices against Israel.

New Delhi’s outward hostility never seemed to trouble Israelis, who knew that India, which had no history of antisemitism, was distancing itself from the Jewish state primarily to secure Arab support in its contest against Islamic Pakistan.

India was home to thriving Jewish communities long before there was any Jewish presence in Europe.

These communities, small but intensely patriotic, produced some of India’s most cherished public figures. Bollywood’s pioneering film stars, Bombay’s most revered poet and its most beloved mayor, India’s most admired general: they were all Jewish.

Israel viewed India with a mixture of exasperation and genuine affection. When China launched an invasion of India in 1962, David Ben-Gurion dashed off a letter of support to Jawaharlal Nehru  —  and then rushed a shipment of weapons to bolster India’s defences. The following decade, Golda Meir supplied arms to Mr Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, as India went to war with Pakistan.

New Delhi’s official stance on Israel began to alter in 1991, when the then Indian prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, granted an audience to the influential Jewish leader Isi Liebler.

The impending demise of the Soviet Union, India’s closest international partner, weighed heavily on Mr Rao’s mind. But it was Mr Liebler’s passionate argument that prompted Mr Rao to order India to vote to reverse the “Zionism equals racism” resolution at the UN. The following year, India established full diplomatic ties with Israel.

In the quarter century since then, India has emerged as Israel’s closest eastern partner. Nearly half of Israel’s arms exports end up in India. But this relationship transcends security concerns. A survey by the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 2009 found India to be the most pro-Israeli nation on Earth. (The United States is ranked second.)

India’s newfound fondness for Israel is partly a product of the rise of Hindu nationalism. Yet it would be a mistake to regard  —  as some Israelis do — India’s 180-million strong Muslim population as the cause of New Delhi’s cold treatment of Israel. Anti-Israeli sentiment was always the preserve of India’s (overwhelmingly Hindu) post-colonial elite.

Mr Modi’s visit to Israel  —  and his decision to drop from his itinerary a planned visit to the PLO’s HQ in Ramallah  —  jettisons the cautious approach traditionally favoured by India’s foreign policy establishment.

Will this alienate the Arab powers? India’s trade with Arab states is worth $121 billion; its trade with Israel currently stands at $5 billion. Some Indians are understandably anxious. But the Israelis, an Indian diplomat tells me, are “ecstatic”.

Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet has approved proposals to devote $80m towards deepening ties with India. Agriculture, education and technology feature prominently. But the most interesting initiative focuses on luring Indian filmmakers to Israel. A trip to Israel is an arduous proposition even for middle-class Indians because Arab nations refuse to open their air space to commercial carriers between the two countries. But Indians will soon get a glimpse of Israel in cinemas across the country.


Kapil Komireddi, an Indian journalist, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East

June 29, 2017 10:49

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