9 June 2015

Take Israel with a pinch of Palestine

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Jun 09, 2015

Israel can be of immense help to India. But one cannot endorse the annexation of the Golan Heights, the stranglehold Israel maintains on the Gaza Strip, and its encroachments in the West Bank.

Somewhere among my papers is an Indian passport valid for only six months enabling me to pay a private visit to Israel. It was issued in London in 1970 for two reasons. First, the Israelis decided after the 1967 war to dig in their toes and stamp Indian passports which had previously been waved through. Second, Arab governments refused entry to foreigners who had visited Israel. So my trip had to be concealed.

Now, with Narendra Modi scheduled to become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, there should no longer be any need for duplicity. But for all his highly publicised foreign policy initiatives and considerable sense of self-importance, Mr Modi must not forget that his Bharatiya Janata Party won only 31 per cent of the national vote. That leaves 69 per cent of Indians who may feel very differently about Israel.

My own feelings remain mixed. If I hadn’t been a profound admirer of all that the Israelis have achieved, I wouldn’t have gone there at my own expense 45 years ago. I also recognise now that Israel can be of immense help to India. But unlike the lobbies in Delhi and Mumbai that the Israelis have won over through deft diplomacy and generous hospitality, I cannot endorse the annexation of the Golan Heights, the stranglehold Israel maintains on the Gaza Strip, and its steady encroachments in the West Bank.

Nothing in West Asia is ever straightforward. P.V. Narasimha Rao surprised me in 1992 by saying Yasser Arafat had assured him India’s cooperation with Israel could only help Palestine. What he didn’t say was it would earn points in Washington and enable India to join the peace process. Narasimha Rao authorised Lalit Mansingh, second-in-command at the Indian embassy in Washington, to open secret negotiations with two powerful Jewish organisations, the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with 55,000 members and a $14.2 million budget. They were so influential that when Harry Truman became President, he lost no time in reneging on the assurances his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had given to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz about a Palestinian homeland. Truman said he had to answer to hundreds of thousands of Jews who wanted Zionism to succeed; he didn’t have hundreds of thousands of Arab constituents.

India’s relations with Israel have always been tortuous. Gandhi rebuffed Zionist delegates before Independence; allegedly, only disgust with the debauched King Farouk of Egypt prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to recognise the Jewish state in 1950. Nevertheless, one gathers there was some security cooperation soon afterwards. India once considered setting up paramilitary settlements on the lines of the original armed Jewish kibbutzim along the China border and buying Israel’s Uzi submachine gun.

Much against his will Nehru was forced to seek Israeli help during the 1962 war. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister, overcame his initial disinclination about helping a country that had repeatedly cold-shouldered him and despatched enough 120-millimetre Tampella mortars plus ammunition and spares for two regiments. But Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vigorous objections prompted Ben-Gurion to demand India should openly ask for the next consignment. That ended further cooperation.

Abba Eban hoped in January 1966 that Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death would lead to a rapprochement. Like others, he had miscalculated Indira Gandhi. Two months later Israel’s ageing President, Zalman Shazar, passing through Calcutta on his way to Nepal, was not only denied ordinary courtesies but was attacked by an organised mob as he entered the Grand Hotel. The next stage was Morarji Desai’s invitation to Moshe Dayan. It’s well known how Desai developed cold feet and instead of establishing diplomatic relations, treated Dayan to one of his famous lectures.

More recently, the two UN delegations consulted each other. Israel trained 45 commandos when India raised the National Security Guards in 1984, and a senior Israeli diplomat, Moshe Yegar, visited New Delhi. Like earlier contacts, these were also strictly covert which is par for the course for Israel. When I visited all those years ago, the Israelis showed me a long black car at the Allenby Bridge. Jordan’s King Hussein, still officially at war with Israel, sent it every morning for that day’s Jerusalem Post. I saw Arab servants working in the supposedly self-sufficient kibbutzim that my English Jewish friends had described as miracles of self-help. I also met Arabs in the West Bank who denounced Israel as the enemy but regarded employment in Israel as a right.

India-Israel ties are now healthy if not booming. President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, as defence minister, have visited India. Two of our foreign ministers, Jaswant Singh and S.M. Krishna, have reciprocated. This first visit by an Indian Prime Minister will gratify Benjamin Netanyahu who was quick to call Mr Modi and offer his cooperation even before the final Lok Sabha results were out. They met in New York after that on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session and must have got on well for this visit to be arranged.

There is no denying that having made the desert bloom, Israel is in a position to help India with technological support, especially with the skills needed for waste recycling, cleansing the Ganga, primary health care, rescue operations, desalination, infrastructure management and medicine. It can also provide invaluable defence training and equipment.

Yet, Mr Modi is not entirely his own master. He cannot afford to ignore domestic sensitivities about Israel’s oppressive policy in relation to the Palestinians. The country will praise him all the more if he obtains a time-bound guarantee that Mr Netanyahu respects the West Asian peace process and will allow a sovereign Palestine to emerge in the foreseeable future.

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