As New Delhi awaits the upcoming visit of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, one can take a historical trip, public and personal, to recall times when visits to India from Israeli officials were a rarity.
India recognized the state of Israel in 1950. Walter Eytan, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry visited India with the belief that his trip was a prelude to an exchange of diplomatic representatives, but had to settle for a consulate in Mumbai, then considered India’s diplomatic Siberia.Although the consulate opened in 1953 India refrained from establishing any official presence in Israel.Instead our embassy in Italy looked after the consular needs.
In 1956 former-Prime Minister and till recently Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett headed Israel’s ruling leftist party Mapai’s delegation to take part in the second Congress of Asian Socialists held in Mumbai in October-November. Sharett’s relationship with Prime Minister Ben Gurion had soured and in June he resigned from the cabinet. In Mumbai Sharett learnt that Pt. Nehru had invited him to Delhi for a meeting onOctober30, before the start of the conference.
Nehru’s good intent was overtaken by events as Israel joined Britain and France in their ill-advised attack on Egypt (Suez) on February 29; this was also anathema to Sharrett who had sparred with Ben Gurion over much smaller aggressions. However, the meeting took place and Sharett’s diary records him making a case for a peace-maker’s role for India:“The Western powers had always been suspect of ulterior motives. The same was true of the USSR. This was not the case of India which no Arab state could accuse of double dealing. Hence, the major role to be played by India regarding the Arab states and the special responsibility which devolved upon her regarding the peace in the middle east”. Such an Indian role would imply normalization of the India-Israel relationship, for which Nehru did not offer Sharrett any commitments.Sharrett’s diary refers tohis talk at Sapru House the next day addressing academics and bureaucrats where “the questions were all polemical and the majority were openly hostile”.(My father, ML Sondhi, then a young IFS probationer, attended this talk.)
In 1961 Deputy Director General of Israel’s Foreign Office Gideon Rafael called on Nehru in New Delhi and he records Nehru’s expressed sympathy for Israel having to face continuous Arab hostility, also his unchanged ambivalence regarding diplomatic ties. In 1966, India refused to entertain Israel’s request for President Shazarto rest overnight in Delhi en route for an official visit to Nepal (Nepal and Israel had granted each other full recognition in 1961). During his brief stopover at Calcutta airport, not only was no official sent to greet him, a group of Arab demonstrators were allowed to come close to the aircraft.
Meanwhile, Sondhi took early retirement from IFS and first visited Israel as a scholar in 1964, interacting with a cross-section of decision-makers including then ex-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. By happenstance, Sondhi was also in Israel during the 1965 Indo-Pak war and his meetings with Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan resulted in Israel providing emergency supplies for India’s defence needs. From 1960’s onwards, in academia, policy circles, political debates and during his parliamentary tenure Prof. Sondhi remained a strong advocate of normalization of relations with Israel.
At the broad policy level, non-alignment lost all meaning when India signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, as did secularism in the foreign policy context when India declared her readiness to participate in the founding meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries at Rabat in 1969 - mercifully she was kicked out at Pakistan’s insistence.
Though Moshe Dayan made a secret trip to India during the Janata years no significant Israeli official or politician would visit India up till mid eighties. Unwilling to engage in open diplomacy, India would nevertheless turn to Israel for armaments in each of its major wars from 1962 onwards, but the public face of Indian diplomacy towards Israel remained irrationally hostile. India would serially vote against Israel at the UN, joining any chorus of condemnation in the company of sundry dictatorships, fundamentalist regimes or totalitarian communist states. India veered far from Sharett’s envisioned responsibility of peacemaker when she voted in 1975 for UN resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism. The same year PLO opened its offices in New Delhi which rose to the status of an embassy when India granted PLO full diplomatic recognition in 1980.
An occasion for an Israeli presence in Delhi arose in 1987 when the Indian and Israeli tennis teams met for the Davis Cup quarter finals: India had previously shunned sporting contact with Israel at venues in either country. Israel sent its sports minister Pinchas Goldstein to accompany the tennis teambutRajiv Gandhi’s government kept its distance.
At this juncture, Prof. M.L.Sondhi took the initiative,to inviteGoldsteinto our home to address around twenty to thirty former diplomats.Bureaucratichostility towards Israel and the Israeli guest was palpable; a diplomat associated with the Rabat fiasco bluntly opined that Israel did not have the right to exist! The only friendly guest that afternoon wasBadruddin Tyabji, ICS, diplomat and former vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, who spoke in favour of a normal relationship between the two countries. Again with Sondhi’s intervention Goldstein and the tennis team received a friendly enough welcome late at night at ex-foreign minister Dinesh Singh’s residence but with no clear commitments. Rajiv Gandhi’s half-hearted tennis diplomacy came to an abrupt end when India refused to play the Davis Cup tie in Israel the following year.
The final push came In June 1991 when five Israeli tourists were kidnapped in Kashmir, and the Indian government permitted Moshe Yegar, head of Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s Asia division to come to Delhi to monitor the rescue efforts. He was assigned a junior officer from the MEA to assist him, but otherwise placed under diplomatic quarantine. Again, private citizen, Sondhi stepped into the diplomatic vacuum and set up a meeting for Year with retired intelligence chief Ram Nath Kao, who in turn suggested that Sondhi arrange forYegar to meet with Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra.This set in motion a chain reaction in Delhi and different parts of the world, finally resulting in the Narasimha Rao government normalizing relations with Israel in 1992.
A decade and half later, it is worth pondering whether India has fulfilled Moshe Sharett’s vision of India as a peace maker in West Asia. Though India has quickly developed a wide-ranging relationship with Israel from agriculture to armaments and nurtured long-term ties with the Arab states and Iran, she has not attempted peace-making in the region. In contrast China, whose cultural and historical ties with the region are much weaker, has sought a broader role: she has held three Palestinian-Israel Peace symposiums since 2003, the last in December 2017. At a minimum, India should not relapse into her anti-US and anti-Israel mode at the UN – the complexity of India’s relationships in West Asia are poorly mirrored in resolutions drafted by states which themselves keep all options open for private dealings with US and Israel. Even in the heyday of anti-colonialism and third worldism, the Indian-Arab shared rhetoric did not translate into Arab support for India’s positions vis a vis Pakistan or China.Indeed Palestinian representatives have never supported India on Kashmir and one hopes that the presence of at Hafiz Saeed’s rally in Pakistan was a mistake.Words penned by Sondhi in 1973 still ring true, “It is not through messianic Zionism or through Pan-Islamism that a new era of reconciliation can be ushered in. India perceives its own opportunities and achievements through its democratic traditions and its faith in modernisation. It is not just an exaggeration to view India’s role in West Asia as that of healing the wounds of the Arab-Israeli war through international social responsibility and hard-headed realism.”
V.L.Sondhi is a Trustee, The M.L.Sondhi trust.