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. Perhaps he was influenced by India’s own experience of partition. He strongly favoured a federation of two states, with a special regime for Jerusalem for… 10 years, to be followed by a referendum,” Chinmaya R Gharekhan, a former Indian Special Envoy to West Asia, wrote in 2014.
That set the template for India’s line on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It took about 45 years for Delhi to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 — and when Sushma Swaraj travels to Palestine and Israel on January 17-18, she will be making only the third foreign ministerial visit to Israel since then.
The story in South Block goes that in January 1992, during a meeting with Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in Delhi, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was advised that it would help the cause of Palestine if India established ties with Israel — for it could try to influence the Israelis only if it had an ambassador in their country.
Arafat came on board. At the press conference after the talks, he famously declared, “The exchange of ambassadors and recognition (of Israel) are acts of sovereignty in which I cannot interfere… I respect any choice of the Indian government”. He added that he hoped this would not affect the strong Indo-Palestinian relationship.
About 10 days later, on January 29, 1992, India established full ties with Israel. 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. However, with Palestine, even the NDA government understands the sensitivities involved.
Thus, Modi met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2015 in New York. And in all public pronouncements, South Block has stressed India’s support to the Palestinian cause.
This was reiterated not only during President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Palestine and Israel in October 2015, but also in the statements that India has made at the UN over the past year and a half. Part of the diplomatic balancing is in the optics — after landing at Ben-Gurion airport, Mukherjee headed first to Palestine, before returning to Israel.
Indications are that Swaraj’s visit will be the precursor to an exchange of visits at the highest level between India and Israel. Modi will become the first Indian PM to visit Israel and Palestine, and top Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, will likely visit India this year.
Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, said on Wednesday that while the relationship has evolved in the last 25 years, it has been “more visible” over the last one-and a half years — and this visibility has not been merely ceremonial and symbolic.
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.