Mumbai: Addressing the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem last week, President Pranab Mukherjee opened a new and long-awaited chapter in the increasingly close, but often hidden, relationship between India and Israel.
That Prime Minister Narendra Modi dispatched the Head of State on a historic mission to Israel, and made it clear he intends to pay an official visit there himself in the coming months, sent a powerful message to the public and the political establishment in both countries — and to their friends around the world.
The visit drew an end to the traditional shyness that — concurrent with critical security cooperation and increasing Israeli tourism — long surrounded Indian-Israeli ties, a shyness motivated by fear of upsetting Arab as well as domestic Muslim sensibilities and possibly imperiling trade, energy supplies, and even the well-being of NRIs in the Gulf.
As history has amply proven, such fears were and are misplaced. Witness the robust trade between the European Union and Israel, which has had no impact on European-Arab trade and investments. Recall the Japanese decision more than two decades ago to cease honouring the Arab boycott of Israel, which has yielded no negative economic or political consequences. Recognise the strategically important relations that such Muslim-majority nations as Egypt and Azerbaijan enjoy with Israel, and the constitutionally equal place of Muslims in Israeli society.
The presidential visit to Israel marks not only the “coming out” of the more than 23-year-old India-Israeli diplomatic relationship but an opportunity to begin building the infrastructure of a vibrant bilateral — and, with the United States, trilateral — partnership across a range of fields. India and Israel, sister democracies, are natural friends and allies. From American Jewish Committee’s (AJC’s) many interactions here over more than two decades, I know of the deep tradition of Indian respect for the Jewish people, the utter absence of Indian anti-Semitism, the contributions Jews have made to this society — in so many endeavors, from the arts to commerce to national defence — and the widely shared admiration for the achievements, vitality and national unity of Israel.
Indian and Israeli entrepreneurs did not need a new signal from Delhi — or a new invitation from President Mukherjee — to discover each other’s talents, capital, zeal for innovation, and markets; Indo-Israeli trade has grown more than 20-fold in the last two decades, hundreds of Israeli businesses now operate in India, and major Indian firms have made substantial investments in Israel. From water use and agricultural technology, to cybersecurity, biomedical innovation and an array of technical services — not to mention the traditional trade in and processing of precious stones — Indians and Israelis have found each other, combined their skills and capacities, and created jobs and profits together.
As President Mukherjee saw with his own eyes, the dynamic spirit of Indian multi-party democracy has its own analog in Israel, suitably scaled to a smaller country. The Parliament he addressed in Jerusalem — fiercely fractious, in the view of some critics — comprises 10 political parties; the Lok Sabha, four and a half times the size, seats nearly four times as many parties (and is surely no less feisty).
The same spirit — again, adjusting for size — animates the media in both countries: famous for diversity, investigative zeal, and sharp elbows.
Another crucial similarity of India and Israel lies in their respective diasporas. The Jewish people’s historical and familial connections to, and moral and spiritual investments in, the state of Israel are an ongoing source of strength, energy and pride both for Israel and for Jewish communities in the United States, Europe, and around the world — including India. And the Indian diaspora’s commitment to the growth and success of India yields substantial returns, from the economic impact of “returning” brainpower to the kind of outpouring of communal spirit evident last year and this in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massively attended public events in the United States. (He should expect a similar, if perforce smaller, reception from the fully integrated Indian Jewish community in Israel.)
For more than two decades, AJC has opened doors, highlighted commonalities and synergies, and reinforced connections between India and Israel, between India and the United States, and between Indians and Jews. Leaders in all three countries have expressed their aspirations for ever-closer cooperation. With the successful visit to Israel of President Mukherjee, and the anticipated visit of Prime Minister Modi, and two rounds of reciprocal visits by President Barack Obama to India and the Prime Minister to the United States, the stage is now set to begin fulfilling the potential of this unique and vital triangular alliance.
Jason Isaacson is Associate Executive Director for Policy of the American Jewish Committee, a 109-year-old NGO, with 22 US offices and representation in 10 other countries, including India. A former senior congressional aide and journalist, he heads AJC’s Washington-based Office of Government and International Affairs.