In the closely scrutinised India-Israel relationship, there is little in the public domain that remains unknown, especially between the leaderships on both sides. But one such little-known and unpublicised meeting took place when then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India more than 15 years ago, in 2003, between him and then Leader of the Opposition and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.
After much speculation and hours before he headed for Mumbai, the maverick and controversial Sharon had an important visitor: a courtesy call from Mrs Gandhi. Both within and outside his country, Sharon evoked strong admiration as well as revulsion, and hence the hesitation on the part of the Congress was understandable. Though photographers were present, the Sharon-Sonia pictures hardly made it to the mainstream media. Neither did the Israel embassy give publicity to the meeting in New Delhi.
What a world of difference today. Moments after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Delhi, the Congress party took to Twitter to criticise Modi’s ‘Hugplomacy,’ a satirical take on the prime minister’s embraces with leaders worldwide. This rather undiplomatic comment came a day after the External Affairs Ministry put out the itinerary of the Israel leader. Unless there are any last minute changes, Netanyahu will not be meeting Congress President Rahul Gandhi during his stay in India. This is likely to have unintended negative consequences for the bilateral relations.
During the decade-long UPA rule, public political contacts between India and Israel were minimal. Even official dinners and national day celebrations did not attract high-profile personalities from the government or party. There were limited Cabinet-level exchanges between the two countries. Things only began to change and change dramatically, after Modi’s election. During the past three years, there have been two presidential and two prime ministerial exchanges besides visits by Foreign, Defence and Home Ministers.
Moreover, Netanyahu’s engagements outside the capital, in Agra, Ahmedabad and Mumbai are also taking place in states ruled by the BJP. The exclusion of Bangalore, where Israel has a consulate could be political than logistical. Even though this has become a familiar pattern when foreign leaders visit India, confining Netanyahu’s itinerary only to BJP-ruled states is a short-sighted move.Since relations were established by Congress Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, consensus building has been the hallmark of Indo-Israeli relations.
When they were in power, all the national and regional parties worked towards promoting relations with Israel. Despite their pro-Palestinian slant, a number of state parties did not seek closer ties with the Jewish State and in the process benefitted from its skills and expertise. Even the Left parties were not an exception to the decentralized nature of the bilateral relations. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu visited Israel in the summer of 2000 and so did Somnath Chatterjee.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the same when he visited Israel July last year and met the leader of the Labor Party Isaac Herzog. Interestingly, just hours before the meeting, Herzog lost the leadership race but the meeting still went ahead.
That’s why the absence of a Rahul Gandhi-Netanyahu meeting is a serious omission. The government might justify this situation to the electoral debacle of the Congress party and the absence of a recognized Leader of the Opposition. Though procedurally correct, this is a short-sighted strategic move and might dent the national consensus vis-à-vis Israel. The Congress party and its allies will be more than happy depict the Netanyahu visit as a BJP-Likud affair than an Indo-Israeli event. As they say, watch this space.