The modern State of Israel was formally born some months after the Union Jack got replaced with the Tricolour across an India that was declared independent on 15 August 1947. Israel had to fight three major wars for its very survival, not to mention numerous other conflicts, each of which was intended by its foes to deal it a lethal blow. The populations of the neighbourhood it is situated in have for long been hostile to the very existence of the Jewish state, and have made several attempts at sabotage, violence and terror against citizens of Israel. And in the case of the ISI-directed 26/11 Mumbai attackers, against the Jewish population in Mumbai. The Holtzbergs were not assassinated because of a property dispute. Indeed, they had never before had any contact with the men sent over from Pakistan for their execution, although it is likely that local sympathisers of terror networks met them earlier to glean information about them and the place they were living and working in. The Jewish couple was killed because of the same reason that six million of the same faith were gassed to death by Germany during 1939-45. They were murdered just for being Jewish, and this despite their being the most productive citizens in the European countries fortunate enough to host them. During that period, their neighbours became their executioners, their supposed friends metamorphosed into their abusers, not simply verbally, but often physically as well. European civilisation has had somewhat dramatic effects on native populations in Australia, North America, Africa and Asia, but it was only after the extermination camps got set up by the 1933-1945 German government that the people of that continent experienced for themselves a level of brutality not seen since the ravages of Timur in India, where he boasted of having slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocents, or the conquests of Genghis Khan across Eurasia.
It was, therefore, a traumatised and numerically tiny community that looked towards once again returning to the region where their theological ancestors had been born millennia ago. And so in 1948, they set up the State of Israel under David Ben Gurion. Of course, given the history of India’s leaders being alone in their backing for the doomed Turkish caliphate in 1919, just as they were the only country to back the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, it was no surprise that India voted against the admission of Israel to the United Nations in 1949. Full diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Delhi had to await the Narasimha Rao government in 1992. After that, it was only in mid-2017 that a Prime Minister of India visited the State of Israel. During this time, the chemistry of the region changed, with the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry superseding in regional importance the problem of Palestine, even as the consequences of Wahhabism (including the nurturing of ISIS) became impossible to ignore among Sunni populations. Modi was, therefore, in a far more advantageous position to visit a country that for decades had stood by India than any of his predecessors.
Unlike India, which remains poor because of defective policies fashioned by a colonial bureaucracy, Israel has become an advanced country, far richer per capita than India. It was to diplomatically hint why this difference was so that Binyamin Netanyahu gave an inspired address to the Raisina Dialogue. Even setting aside other pluses, the opening speech of Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Raisina Dialogue made his visit worthwhile. With liberal doses of irony mixed with subtle humour, he explained why the colonial construct of “maximum government” (naturally at the expense of the autonomy of civil society) was destructive for gifted populations such as those in Israel and India. It was not the initiatives of government that assured progress so much as the freeing of individual initiative through a dismantling of the constricting framework of regulations and laws that bureaucrats (and their political patrons) so cherished. Israel had made such a transition much earlier and reaped the benefits, and Netanyahu hinted that India should follow. He highlighted the freedoms inherent in a democracy, and by implication warned against their being snuffed out or curtailed, the way some are seeking to do in the matter of lifestyle, diet and even movie habits.
However, it must be admitted that Netanyahu oversees the Palestinian territories in a way that leaves very little room for individual freedom. This columnist has long held that Israel should take for itself what territory it considers necessary for its own safety and salience, but leave the Palestinians free to run their own lives in the remainder of the West Bank and Gaza, of course as a demilitarised state where there would be only the police and not an army or air force. What of course needs to be avoided is the creation in that region of another Pakistan, an army with a state, that views its reason for existence as the downfall of its neighbour. A civilian (and for a while internationally monitored) airport and port should be built within the Palestinian territories that remain after an Israeli withdrawal. The Palestinian people are as capable of innovation as Israelis in Israel and Indians outside India have shown themselves to be, and even a territorially diminished but fully autonomous State of Palestine could soon become a regional economic powerhouse, especially if investment flows in from its Arab neighbours and from countries such as India. Hopefully, during his forthcoming trip to the Palestinian territories, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will announce a gift of such essentials as the setting up of a university and a hospital complex within the West Bank.
Prime Minister Modi has frequently shown great courage in moving ahead on policy paths that his predecessors feared to tread. Should he fulfil his 2014 pledge of “minimum government” through eliminating the red tape that is drowning the economy in red ink, that would be his most significant achievement.