Most Indians familiar with the guest-list of presidents, prime ministers, kings and emirs who descend on New Delhi every year with the end of summer will approve of India’s invitation to Israel’s prime minister to visit New Delhi for the first time since the Jewish state was established 55 years ago. Many of those who have been fence-sitters on this issue have been swayed by the August 25 bombings in Mumbai and think of Ariel Sharon’s forthcoming visit in terms of an Indo-Israeli alliance against Islamic terrorism.
This column has enthusiastically endorsed the idea of closer Indo-Israeli ties, arguing forcefully in favour of diplomatic relations with Israel when New Delhi was pussyfooting on the issue. It advocated a security relationship with Tel Aviv when opinion in North and South Blocks was heavily weighted towards a more cautious — and surreptitious — approach.
Time was when members of the first delegation to Israel from the National Defence College in New Delhi were told not to talk about their trip to the media and the Indian ambassador in Tel Aviv urged this writer long after the visit had taken place not to write about it. India and Israel have come a long, long way since the days when deals had to be made in secret.
Now India is at the other — and rather worrying — extreme. Many of those who are enthusiastic about a visit by Sharon make the fanciful assumption that because India and Israel are both victims of terrorism, the sky is the limit to their bilateral relations. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is fond of using the term “natural allies” to describe India’s relations with the United States of America, but to many Indians, it is Israel which fits this definition. At the least, they would like to see Israel incorporated into this projected “natural” alliance of India and the US.
The first visit by an Israeli prime minister to India is an occasion to take a hard look at some of the misconceptions which have led to an uplift in New Delhi’s bonhomie with Tel Aviv in the public domain and analyse the potential pitfalls in India’s ties with the Jewish state — if only to avoid disenchantment in future or at worst, a backlash.
Those who advocate an unfettered embrace of Israel by India fail to recognize that few other countries have pursued foreign and security policies as successfully as Israel since World War II. Those policies are determined by two yardsticks: Israel’s interest and protection for the Jewish diaspora. Israel has been successful in carrying out such policies because they are backed by national will and a determination to see them through. Besides, few other countries have the capability, backed by a global Jewish network, to ensure their implementation.
Indians tend to overlook the reality that India figures on Israel’s radar not because of any love, sentiment or romanticism of the kind fuelled in the former Soviet Union by Raj Kapoor. India is there because Israel finds connections in New Delhi useful.
One example will illustrate this. Some two years ago, when Indian jawans were serving as peacekeepers in Lebanon as part of the United Nations interim force in Lebanon, Israel launched a campaign to discredit the Indian army contingent there. When three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by the militant Hezbollah, the Israelis orchestrated a disinformation campaign — first in their media, which was picked up by the international media — that the Hezbollah had bought scores of Indian soldiers with a few thousand dollars to help the militants. It was the seamiest allegation ever levelled against an Indian military unit abroad since New Delhi started taking part in UN peace-keeping half a century ago.
All this while, Israeli diplomats at the UN were apologizing to their Indian counterparts in private for concocting and then leaking the allegation, which they duly conceded, was untrue and could not, in any case, be proven. The Israeli diplomats candidly told members of India’s permanent mission to the UN that their objective was to discredit the UN operation in Lebanon and not the Indian army. They wanted the UN out of the way and the Indians just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time in Israel’s strategy. To call the plan diabolical would be an understatement, but it is an example of how Israel will stop at nothing to enhance what it sees as its national interest.
Because Israel has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, abjured ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty and is widely credited with possession of nuclear weapons without being part of the nuclear club, there is a widely held presumption in India that New Delhi and Tel Aviv see eye to eye on the nuclear question. Israel prefers to be opaque on this issue and its leaders and officials prefer not to talk about it with Indians. But if you press them on this subject, they will tell you that their stand on the nuclear issue is clearly at variance with that of New Delhi. In India, the national consensus is that the issue of non-proliferation is a global issue. India tested its nuclear weapons in 1974 and again in 1998 because the inequities of the global non-proliferation regime made it necessary for New Delhi to possess a minimum nuclear deterrent.
For Israel, on the other hand, nuclear deterrence is a regional issue. If its neighbourhood, the entire Middle East, were to become a secure, guaranteed nuclear free zone, Tel Aviv would have no problem acceding to NPT or ratifying CTBT. Not so in India’s case. Ten years ago, the Americans tried to corner India into the box of regional non-proliferation and roll back New Delhi’s nuclear programme. Washington wanted to organize a regional conference on proliferation: at one stage it even managed to get India to discuss the issue at an ill-fated meeting in London. At that time, Indian diplomats sounded the Israelis out on the nuclear question. Tel Aviv’s reply was unambiguous. For Israel, the nuclear threat was regional, not global.
Another popular misconception in India is that Israel is anti-Muslim. Zionists in Israel and among the Jewish diaspora may spout anti-Muslim views and act on them, but as a nation, Israel’s problem is with Arabs, primarily Palestinians, not with Muslims. George Habash was the bête noire of all Israel for years when he orchestrated a string of spectacular Palestinian terrorist acts, including the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. He is a Christian. So is Nayef Hawatmeh, another high profile Palestinian leader. Suha Tawil, wife of Palestine’s tallest leader, Yasser Arafat, is a Christian. The most influential Christian in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority is Hanan Ashrawi, the articulate spokesperson for Palestinians.
At home, Indians knew at first hand the former Israeli ambassador in New Delhi, Yehoyada Haim, whose inputs in his new job count for a lot in the shaping of Israeli intelligence. Haim, who is more well-versed in diverse Arabic dialects than many Arabs, made it a point to reach out to Indian Muslims during his very successful tenure in the capital and probably made more friends among them than most Arab ambassadors in Chanakyapuri. Therefore, when Pervez Musharraf makes noises, however feeble, on the subject of Pakistan establishing diplomatic relations with Israel or when Israel’s envoy in Brussels makes conciliatory statements about stamps on Pakistani passports banning travel to the Jewish state and welcomes Pakistanis, Indians ought not to be surprised.
Israel’s destiny — and its geography — demands that it should engage with Muslims and with countries which have huge Muslim populations. It has done so in Indonesia, it has fruitfully engaged Morocco, and the Israeli presence that sprouted in Doha and Muscat before the latest Palestinian intifada was the culmination of a long clandestine accommodation worked out with moderate Muslim states.
For India, relations with Israel are extremely valuable. The Kargil war would have been won anyway, but only with far more Indian casualties, if it were not for the timely help from Israel, many details of which are still under wraps in New Delhi. India’s relations with the US would be nowhere near what they are today if P.V. Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee had not courted America’s Jewish lobby as ardently as they courted official Washington.
The hotheads in India who foolishly argue in favour of an all-out alliance with Israel in the false hope that it will help curb domestic terrorism do not pause to consider if Sharon’s policies have increased security for Israelis.
Five or ten years ago, Israelis left home with the same amount of confidence in their safety with which Indians venture out in these days of terrorist threats. But today, no Israeli feels safe anywhere. More Palestinians may have been killed in Israeli retribution than at any time in the recent past, but it has not brought safety to the people of Israel. Indians who favour an all-out endorsement of Sharon’s policies should ask themselves if that is the fate they want for the people of India as well.