The Bharatiya Janata Party has always been overly effusive over our security ties with Israel, as though such relationship did not exist before their regime in 1996. Although India recognised Israel in 1950, we maintained only consular relations due to geopolitical factors affecting our foreign policy. We developed full diplomatic relations only in 1992 with P.V. Narasimha Rao as our prime minister. But he was lucky to have been able to take the credit due to the drastically altered global political scenario after the 1990-91 Gulf war. In fact, moves towards establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel had started through secret channels even during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure, which was continued by Rajiv Gandhi.
There was high drama during the first Indian high-level official visit on June 14, 2000 by then Home Minister L.K. Advani. The conspicuous feature of his visit was that all his security chiefs like the home secretary, joint secretary (security) and the chiefs of the BSF, CBI and IB were in his entourage. Advani’s visit to Israel was preceded by that of Russian interior minister Vladimir Rushailo. At that time Reuven Paz, noted Israeli counter terrorism expert, wrote a column mocking these visits saying that both these countries, which had earlier criticised Israel for fighting the Palestinian “freedom fighters”, were queuing up to hurriedly learn from the Israeli experience on how to fight such “freedom fighters” in their own backyard.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhyahu’s exhilarated welcome remarks, “We’ve waited for you 70 years”, might sound delightfully dramatic for headlines. That does not mean that a prime ministerial visit is always needed to give substance to the bilateral relationship between India and Israel. Much was achieved in the defence, intelligence and security relationship even when we did not have full diplomatic relations. None of these details can be revealed even now.
In those days, every visiting Israeli security leader used to meet our successive prime ministers to discuss substantive security cooperation. I remember Nahum Admoni (chief of Mossad, 1982-89) telling me about his first visit to New Delhi in the early 1970s — when he was not yet the chief — and his close interaction with the legendary R.N. Kao and their meetings with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Subsequent chiefs like Shabtai Shavit and Ephraim Halevy also had the same access to Indian prime ministers like Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh.
Conversely, our own security chiefs used to meet their prime ministers on our visits to that country. For example, this writer was part of our delegations to meet Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (1986-1992) twice to discuss close intelligence and security cooperation. At that time, Shamir had quoted King Hassan II of Morocco to convey to us that even Yasser Arafat would not take it amiss if India established full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The period just before and after Operation Blue Star saw close cooperation bloom. We sought out their services successfully to plug every possible gap in our VIP security when our Western allies would not sell us modern equipment to counter threats from remote controlled devices. They helped us to discreetly counter aggressive Pakistani moves threatening our land and air security.
However, the only fly in the ointment even in those days was our constant suspicion that Israel had parallel secret contacts with both China and Pakistan. Foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri openly admitted on September 6, 2005 that Pakistan and Israel had “secret contacts with each other for more than 10 years”.
More recently, The Jerusalem Post (December 1, 2010) quoted a Wikileaks document from October 7, 2009, saying that Pakistan’s ISI chief, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, had alerted Israel “Regarding possible terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli sites in India”. The document continued: “Pasha asked [the] Ambassador to convey to Washington that he had followed up on threat information that an attack would be launched against India between September-November” the cable read.
The report said: “A few weeks before the cable was written, the Israeli Counter-Terror Bureau had issued a travel advisory warning of possible attacks against Israeli sites in India”. We still do not know the veracity of this cable. It is for the present leadership to investigate.