President Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit to Israel took place while Israel was undergoing a severe security crisis, with its capital the focus of action and attention. This gave the event added significance.
Israelis have been interested in India long before it became a rite of passage for thousands of young and not so young adults, immediately following the end of their tension-filled three years of conscription. Of late, there is even an academic cottage industry of studies and papers emanating from the fascination of Israel’s founding generation with the world’s largest democracy.
Freedom for the Indian sub-continent was followed in less than a year by the withdrawal of the British Mandate from Palestine — a term encompassing today’s Israel, the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza strip. Once the Raj ended, there was little reason for the British to expend their meagre resources on holding on to Palestine, though it took them several more years to let go of their Suez Canal base.
Israel’s early leaders, notably its first two Prime Ministers, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, the latter also foreign minister for the first eight years of the state’s existence, had a keen interest in Buddhism (Ben-Gurion) and in India’s global influence (Sharett). Obviously, they noted the similarity, albeit on a much larger scale, between the two entities created by partition. Israel, with its Jewish majority and Arab minority, most of which was and is Muslim, was in this regard a tiny replica of Hindu-majority and Muslim-minority India.
While there was not an Arab-Israeli equivalent to Pakistan, at least until not the emergence of the putative state of Palestine, Israeli governments could understand the strategic logic underpinning India’s behaviour, mindful as it must be of both Pakistan and China. The same vectors probably shaped the decisions to undertake certain nuclear weapon policies and to resist American pressures to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty regime. Once Bangladesh came into being as a separate entity with India’s landmass between it and its erstwhile brethren, there emerged a model of sorts for the split between the two heavily populated territories of the Palestinian Authority — the West Bank under the more pragmatic and secular Fatah and Gaza under the militant Islamist movement Hamas.
This was to come much later, but almost from the start Sharett and his moderate school were disappointed to see that India’s role as a leader of the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movements translated into a pro-Arab slant. Nehru sided with Egypt’s Nasser. The Soviet Union was helping both the Arab states and India, while American support was given to Israel and Pakistan. The lines were seemingly drawn.
For a short time in the 1960s, the moderates seemed to prevail. The Indo-Pakistan ‘Spirit of Tashkent’ resonated in Jerusalem and brought hope that implacable foes could find the gaps between them bridgeable after all. However, that was shelved by the 1967 crisis and war, brought among other reasons by the action of UN Emergency Force Commander Indian General Indar Jit Rikhye’s instructions to withdraw his trip-wire observers from their posts on the Egypt-Israel border. Had Israel’s Indian diplomacy been sharper and had Rikhye as a result stalled, Nasser would not have had his prestige on the line, pushing him to escalate until Israel felt compelled to strike.
India was so visibly pro-Arab as to be out of the game after 1967. The formula (‘Peace for Territory’) on which peace will ultimately be based, UNSC Resolution 242 of November 1967, had no need for Indian involvement. The great powers were the only ones needed.
Domestically, there was also a resemblence between the ruling parties in the first three decades of independence. When I visited Delhi for the first time in 1976-77, one could not have avoided Indira Gandhi — India’s Golda Meir — and her dominance over public discourse. “Our Lady, you will lead us into the great take-off,” said one giant sign donated by Air India, if memory serves me right. The Congress seemed destined to rule forever, much as the British did at one time. But in the 1977 elections, both the Congress and Israel’s Labor lost power to right-wing rivals, for the first though not the last time.
Relations between the governments took off in the 1990s, with the Cold War over and Yitzhak Rabin presiding over a short period of diplomatic gains by Israel — the Oslo Accords and a peace treaty with Jordan. India suddenly appeared on the defence ministry’s strategic map depicting countries in order of closeness to Israel. There it was, right under the top tier (US, followed by the EU as a group and Germany in particular), along with Jordan — the buffer between Israel’s eastern border and its enemies Iraq and Iran — and pre-Erdogan Turkey. Security, industrial and commercial ties blossomed, and remain strong and vital to this day.
Yet Israel’s position is precarious and contradictory. Its vaunted military machine can withstand an assault by any combination of hostile neighbours, but has proven powerless to foil teenager attacks with knives and makeshift weapons seemingly everywhere among a panic-stricken population. This outbreak may subside. Nevertheless, it has already served as a reminder that the status quo in which Israel settles on and in territories it occupied but never annexed (for fear of harsh world reaction plus the need to confer citizenship and voting rights on millions, thus tilting the internal demographic and political balance) is untenable.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, was on the verge of losing his bid for re-election earlier this year, he had stooped to polarise Israel’s society by pitting right-wing voters against the Arab minority. Many Israelis reject Netanyahu’s personality, programme and politics; he came out ahead of everybody else, but with a mere one-fourth of Knesset members. Netanyahu, it is worth remembering, is not Israel. And many secular Israelis do not care for so-called holy places and shudder at the thought that national movements would get bogged down in never-ending religious wars. This can only be encouraging for the relationship between the two democracies.
Amir Oren writes on defence and government for Haaretz
The views expressed are personal