India’s relations with Israel are on an upswing. The visits, first by President Pranab Mukherjee and then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, in the last few months, have prepared the groundwork for the first-ever visit by an Indian prime minister, possibly later this year.
There is bound to be opposition within the country from the Left and other groups but Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears intent on pursuing a foreign policy driven by our national interests.
The visit would provide a fillip to our growing bilateral ties. There are Israeli investments in India in agriculture and high-tech areas, and the annual bilateral trade is nearing the $5 billion mark, excluding defence. Israel has proved to be a reliable partner and in 1999, during the Kargil War, supplied the urgently-needed defence equipment.
At a press conference shortly after opening our embassy in Tel Aviv in May 1992, I was asked whether defence cooperation with Israel was on the anvil. I had to admit that commercial logic dictated that we should be interested in what Israel had to offer in meeting our requirements.
After the Gulf War, the Middle East Peace Process acquired positive dynamics. The Madrid Conference in 1991 was followed by twin track negotiations: Separate bilateral negotiations between Israel and its neighbours Jordan (Palestinians were part of this delegation), Lebanon and Syria; and, multilateral negotiations in five separate groups focusing on water, environment, arms control, refugees and economic development.
India was keen on being part of the security dialogue. However, Israel insisted on India first establishing diplomatic relations before being allowed to join the process. This precipitated our decision to establish a resident mission in Israel. Foreign secretary JN Dixit rightly justified this decision as having been taken keeping in view the “legitimate interests of India”.
Support for the Palestinian issue was important from the standpoint of our domestic political considerations and, our relations with the Arab world given the presence of a large Indian diaspora there and that most of our oil supplies were sourced from there.
This decision was taken in consultation with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. His sense of pragmatism was shared by Faisal Husseini, head of the Palestinian office at Orient House in East Jerusalem. In my early days in Israel, I used to meet Husseini regularly and he showed commendable understanding of our decision.
Today, it has become a norm for nations to seek to optimise their relations with diverse and often competing power centres. But at that time our decision to de-link the Palestinian issue and our relations with Israel was a bold one. Credit for this must go to then Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao. One of his first initiatives after the establishment of our embassy was to send MS Swaminathan, father of our green revolution, to Israel to study what we could learn from their experience in the fields of agriculture, drip irrigation, water conservation and solar energy.
Ironically, even as Rao was optimistic about our engagement with Israel and despite Dixit’s backing for establishing full diplomatic relations, the brief given to me by the head of division in the Ministry of External Affairs was that I just go through with the technicality of opening the embassy in Tel Aviv and do nothing further. Thankfully Dixit told me to keep my eyes and ears open and recommend what in my assessment would be in India’s best interests.
Soon after arriving in Israel I realised that our foreign ministry establishment would take time to get over years of prejudices built into our foreign policy.
In May 1993 Israel’s foreign minister Shimon Peres visited India but got a lukewarm response. He was not received by our prime minister and had to be content with delegation-level talks with a junior minister at the foreign ministry. The return visit of external affairs minister Jaswant Singh took place only in 2000.
In retrospect, I find justification in Israel moving forward with our state governments that were only too eager to explore cooperation with Israel, particularly given its reputation in drip irrigation technology.
I recall Sharad Pawar, then Maharashtra chief minister and Congress leader, leading a delegation of over 500 farmers to the Agritech trade fair in Tel Aviv in early 1993. This was followed by visits of several of chief ministers in quick succession. In fact, the mission had the unenviable task of advising prospective high-level visitors to space out their visits so that we could plan their trips and service the delegations satisfactorily. The relationship thus witnessed a flying start despite the coyness and hesitation on the part of our foreign ministry.
In the words of PR Kumaraswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who used to teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem when I was in Israel, the current improved state of relations signifies “maturation of India-Israeli ties”. While we have not hesitated to develop close bilateral relations with Israel we still continue to fully support the Palestinian aspirations for an independent State and remain firmly opposed to Israel continuing to build settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Virendra Gupta is a former ambassador and opened the Indian embassy in Israel in May 1992 . The views expressed are personal.