Mr S. M. Krishna's visit to Israel can prepare the ground for a wide-ranging engagement.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a Partition Plan, with a two-third 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 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 Palestinian leaders 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, EU, Russia and the UN, has taken centrestage in promoting direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Neither India nor China or any other Asian or Middle Eastern country has a role in this effort.

Driven by its domestic political compulsions, the dynamics of Cold War politics and by its role in the Non-Aligned 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-Israel relationship has quietly, but most importantly, been security- driven. While many aspects of the relationship, particularly in the spheres of defence, aero-space and counter-insurgency have been kept under wraps, they are now coming into public focus in studies by Indian and Israeli scholars. During the past decade, Israel has emerged as the second largest supplier of sophisticated weapons systems to India. Former President Dr 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 vastly expanding collaboration in areas like crucial air defence systems and missiles, upgrading of aging equipment from the Soviet period, 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 direction 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 areas like defence and aerospace, Israel has emerged as an important partner.

The Tatas have become the first Indian corporate house 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 the agreement reached in 2003, that India would launch a satellite developed by the 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 on the rise of China have helped India obtain exclusive access 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 J10, which was designed and developed by Israel.

Under pressure from its Communist allies, Dr Manmohan Singh's UPA (1) Government avoided visits by Cabinet Ministers to Israel. The CPI (M)'s apprehensions 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.

In a welcome change to 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 on January 9.

This doesn't 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-Indian Resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir, in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). They should be left in doubt that friendship is a two-way street.

(This article was published on January 4, 2012)
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