by G. Parthasarathy
ON November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a Partition Plan, with a two-thirds majority, dividing the British Mandate of Palestine into two states — Jewish and Muslim. The resolution was accepted by the Jewish leadership and rejected by the Arabs. A newly independent India, torn apart by the massacres that followed its communal partition, predictably voted against the partition of Palestine on communal lines. Just over two years later, responding to international realities, India recognised Israel. But the seeds of partition of Palestine were sown half a century earlier, when the First Zionist Congress held in Switzerland in 1897, called for the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the “Land of the Pure”, or Palestine.
Arab intellectuals responded two decades later, demanding the independence from the Ottoman Empire of all Arab provinces, including Palestine. Refusing to recognise the State of Israel, invading Arab forces were humiliatingly defeated in wars with the Jewish state in 1948, 1967 and 1973. The Egyptians made peace with Israel in 1979 and have since maintained a normal, but sometimes uneasy relationship with it. Jordan soon followed suit.
Ever since then a number of Arab countries commenced overt or covert ties with the Jewish state. Some, like Kuwait and Oman, shut their doors to the free entry of Palestinians. Moreover, Arab-Israeli differences now lie largely subsumed in Shia-Sunni tensions within countries like Iraq and Bahrain. Historical Arab-Persian rivalries between Shia-dominated Iran on the one hand and its Sunni Gulf Arab neighbours led by Saudi Arabia on the other also tend to dominate Arab attention today, even more than the Palestinian issue.
An Israeli delegation led by Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat strove in 1993 to find a peaceful solution to their differences through what became known as the Oslo peace process. A crucial milestone in this process was Arafat’s letter of recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Since then the “Mid-East Quartet” comprising the US, the EU, Russia and the UN has taken centrestage in promoting direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Neither India nor China nor any other Asian country has a role in this effort.
Driven by its domestic political compulsions, the dynamics of Cold War politics and its role in the nonaligned movement, India hesitated in moving towards establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, even though ties at covert levels continued, with Israel providing India with urgently needed military supplies, during and after the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict. But with the end of the Cold war and the Arabs and Israelis themselves talking directly to each other, India moved, albeit belatedly, to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, in 1992. What has emerged since then has been a burgeoning security relationship between the two countries.
For Israel, this relationship has attained greater importance after Turkey turned hostile to it, in recent years. Israel, however, has normal and friendly relations with China, Japan and a number of East Asian countries. It also has friendly ties with India’s neighbours like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar.
The India-Israeli relationship has quietly been security driven. While many aspects of the relationship, particularly in the spheres of defence, aerospace and counter-insurgency, have been kept under wraps, they are now coming into public focus in studies by Indian and Israeli scholars. Over the past decade, Israel has emerged as the second largest supplier of sophisticated weapon systems to India. Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam played a crucial role in promoting this effort, after his visit to Israel in 1996, as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. This has now led to a vastly expanding collaboration in areas like crucial air defence systems and missiles, upgrading of the aging Soviet-era equipment, including tanks and fighter aircraft, and cooperation in areas of research and development, in highly advanced night vision devices, sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles, which have a crucial role in dealing with cross-border terrorism. Sadly, our former Ambassador to Israel Raminder Singh Jassal, who played a key role in shaping the strategic directions of relations with Israel, died recently in Turkey.
As India seeks industrial development in areas of high technology and the involvement of its private sector in fields like defence and aerospace, Israel has emerged as an important partner. The Tatas have become the first Indian company to seek manufacturing and R&D facilities through collaboration with Israel in areas like radars, electronic warfare and homeland security systems. Cooperation in aerospace with Israel commenced with an agreement reached in 2003 that India would launch a satellite developed by Tel Aviv University.
The Israeli satellite “Polaris” was launched by ISRO in 2008. Shortly thereafter India launched an Israeli-made imaging satellite RISAT 2. India has also leveraged its ties with Israel to secure Congressional understanding in the US on several critical issues. While American concerns about the rise of China have secured India exclusive access in Asia to advanced early warning systems like the Israeli PHALCON, there are areas of concern where Israeli transfers to China are finding their way to Pakistan, for fighter aircraft like the Chinese J 10, which was designed and developed by Israel.
Under pressure from is communist allies, Dr Manmohan Singh’s UPA-I government avoided visits by Cabinet ministers to Israel. The CPM’s objections were strange, given the fact that two of its top leaders, Mr Jyoti Basu and Mr Somnath Chatterjee, had paid an extended visit to Israel in 2000 and sought Israeli cooperation in agriculture and industry. It has been fairly common for chief ministers of Indian states, ranging from Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh to Haryana and Punjab, to visit Israel for collaboration projects in agriculture, horticulture, water management and sprinkler systems.
Reflecting a welcome change in what was a strange policy, driven by the “compulsions of coalition politics”, the External Affairs Minister, Mr S.M. Krishna, is now scheduled to visit Israel shortly. This does not signal a change in India’s principled position that Israel should avoid building settlements in territories occupied by it and work for a solution that leads to the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, while guaranteeing the security of all states in the region. Arab states tend to take India for granted by routinely supporting gratuitous anti-India resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir in the Organisation of Islamic Conference. They should be made to realise that friendship is a two-way street. India has taken an overly benign view of gross human rights violations and sectarian tensions in some Arab countries. The possibility of reviewing this policy should always be kept open.