Barometer of Indian foreign policy

(Courtesy of The Island)
By Bandu de Silva

Nehru’s Dilemma

The history of India’s attitude towards the Palestine issue and response to the creation of the state of Israel from the days of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru presents an interesting spectacle in the development of Indian foreign policy.

The first time India was made to express a view internationally on Palestine was when as a new member of the UN, she was appointed as a member of the UN Special Committee on Palestine.(UNSCOP). This Committee put forward two plans: the majority plan insisted on the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, with the internalisation of Jerusalem under UN jurisdiction; while the minority plan suggested the creation of a federal state with Jewish and Palestine units, with Jerusalem as the national capital. In the General Assembly vote that followed, two thirds of the delegations voted for partition but India sided with the Arabs and voted against the resolution. Two reasons can be given for India’ stand. First, since the opposition of the Indian National Congress to the two nation theory as reflected in its objection to the partition of India itself on religious ground, was hanging on the neck of the Congress like a mill stone that India could not think of an alternative to voting against the partition of Palestine on such grounds. Second, since the Indian leaders had always supported the Palestinian Arabs from the days of India’s freedom struggle, they were unable to take a stand against them all of a sudden. India therefore wanted the Jews and Arabs to work out their differences within “one Federal State of Palestine” but this was not possible since Zionism had raised its ugly head and relations between Zionists and Arabs were unbridgeable by that time.

When the British mandate over Palestine ended on 14th May 1948 armed conflict erupted between the newly and forcibly created Israel state and the Palestinian Arabs. WhenIsrael, after its establishment, applied for admission to the UN and the matter was put to vote India’s first reaction was to abstain but later India chose to vote against Israel. This was on the ground that India as it stood at that time, could not recognise a state which had been achieved through the force of arms and not through negotiations. (Ironically, India later came to abandon this very principle when it intervened militarily in the war of liberation of former East Pakistan in 1971 while Sri Lanka did not endorse the Indian military intervention.).

Later in 1950, India recognised Israel after over 60 members had recognised the new state though no diplomatic relations were established between the two countries until 1992 under the Premiership of National Congress leader Narasimha Rao. Meanwhile, an Immigration Office was established in Mumbai to facilitate movement of personnel from two states which later gained the status of a Consulate.

Strong Relations at highest level

India and Israel had no real bi-lateral problems but India had to balance her relations with Arab/Muslim countries because her eternal adversary, Pakistan, was trying to make capital out of Muslim sentiments through the Pan-Islamic Conference and also because of the presence of a large Muslim community in India which had to be kept satisfied. However, high level correspondence continued between the leaders of the two sides, Israeli leaders trying to convince Nehru to support their cause. Even scientist Albert Einstein, who though not a supporter of Zionism, wrote to Nehru but the latter stuck to India’s traditional position.

Nevertheless, in the real Kautilyan way, despite his strong ties with the Arab world, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not hesitate to state that Indian policy, despite the rhetoric, was guided by self-interest, [which is an observation which resonated even later in Indian foreign policy circles]. He was ready to reach out to Israel when the situation demanded.

In cables accessed by The Hindu at the Israeli archives, which contains a series of exchanges between the two leaders during October-November 1962,both leaders refer to the situation on theSino-Indian borders At the peak of the 1962 India-China hostilities, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wrote to Nehru expressing Israel’s “fullest sympathy and understanding”, and provided weapons to the Indian forces.

Continued contacts: B.K. Nehru’s intervention

Thus, although India and Israel had no serious bilateral problems, their only major difference was related to the Palestine issue. By the late 1950s, opposition to Israeli policies on one hand, and commitment to the Palestine cause, on the other, became one of the main features of India’s foreign policy.

The archives also reveal that Israel remained in close touch with not just Nehru but also other members of the Nehruvian regime, including India’s then ambassador to the United States B.K. Nehru, who courted the Jewish lobby in Washington to facilitate essential discussion between two sides.

B.K. Nehru had written to Congressman Emanuel Celler on September 3, 1963 conveying that India was in favour of people-to-people contactbetween the two sides. (This is diplomatic jargon was used by India’s Foreign Secretary in relation to Indo-Sri Lankan relations many decades later.) He assured that New Delhi had not prevent its citizens from travelling to Israel and is open to Israeli travellers.

“We have long recognised Israel as an independent, sovereign state and our relation with that country have always been harmonious and friendly,” said the envoy who had a Jewish connect through his wife Fori.

Indira Gandhi’s obsession

Indira Gandhi was obsessed with the idea that India was encircled all round by hostile forces. In the south, as she claimed in LokSabha, that included Sri Lanka where a terrorist war had begun against the government supported by her government and that that of the State of Tamil Nadu.J.R.jayewardene government in Sri Lanka had sought the support of the Israeli Mossad to train a section of the Sri Lankan Police. Besides, he had opened the Port of Trincomalee to the U.S. Navy. Unofficially it was claimed that the Mossad helped the forces in intelligence gathering. Later evidence, subject to verification show that Mossad, indicate that Mossad was helping the Tamil terrorist groups as well.


Indira Gandhi was apprehensive of the activities of Mossad just south of India and intensified her support to Tamil terrorist forces. Under Rajiv Gandhi, the next Indian Prime Minister, the apprehension over Mossad activities in Sri Lanka continued. A revision of this position came about when the Tamil Tigers commenced fighting against the so called IPKF forces.

A new Chapter

India’ need to upgrade her armed forces with modern weapons of quality in the light of threat posed by Pakistan in Kashmir and China on the northern borders, made her completely reverse her ambiguous policy towards Israel. That Israel had now become India’s number two arms supplier after Russia remained no longer a secret. Formal diplomatic relations were opened between the two countries in 1999. That was a year before Sri Lanka did so.

Under Prime Minister AtalBahariBajpayee of the BJP, when the Kargil crisis erupted leading to war with Pakistan, Israeli supplies of crucial surveillance support and her provision of defence strategy became a crucial factor for India. Bajpayee called Israel “our natural ally”.

Under the next Premier Manmohan Singh, it was more diplomacy that was activated in relations between the two countries though defence and technological cooperation continued. A thin line was now being drawn between Israel policy and the support for Palestine.

Modi, “the revolutionary”

When Prime Minister Modi paid an official visit to Israel in July last year during which he visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem accompanied by Prime Minister Netyanyahu, he became the first Indian Minister to do so. The visit was partly to participate in celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of celebrations of diplomatic relations between the two countries but it had also important strategic and economic dimensions attached to it. In Israel, the visit was viewed as important as that of U.S President and Pope Francis earlier.

As a diversion, distinction was made regarding this visit as marking a shift in Indian policy towards Palestine favouring Israel, since the Prime Minister did not pay a balancing visit to Ramallah where the government of Palestinian Authority is based. This was in contrast to the earlier visit by former President Pranath Mukherjee a month earlier which was preceded by a visit to Ramallah. Earlier, New Delhi received Mahamoud Abbas, President of the state of Palestine when he was ensured of continuing Indian support for Palestine.

Strategic Partnership

Defense has been a primary driver in Indo-Israel relationship, but broadening of that relationship was envisaged during Modi’s visit for which both sides were trying to create an enabling environment. The two countries signed an air and missile defense deal worth almost $2 billion in April, in what Israel termed the “largest defense contract deal” in its history.

Bilateral trade which was worth around $200 million and mainly consisted of diamonds, had skyrocketed by 2016 to $4.16 billion, excluding defense purchases . In 2016, India accounted for 3.3% of Israel’s trade, with imports and exports including agriculture, textiles, machinery, and chemical and mineral products. Modi’s schedule included meetings with Israeli CEOs, seeking an opportunity to encourage Israeli businesses ranging from diamond merchants to tech firms to sell their wares in India. The bi-lateral trade which is below potential was seen leaving room for expansion. The emphasis on diamond trade is significant in the context that Gujarat, where Modi’s power base lies, is the key diamond centre in India and could give a boost up to the economy of that state including employment generation.

The two countries share intelligence and have a counterterrorism working group. Indian special forces are being trained in Israel. After the two Mombai bombings, India has concentrated on anti-terrorism measures originating from groups in Pakisitan.

Netanyahu’s return visit to New Delhi

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s six day return visit to New Delhi took place from January 14th 2018, accompanied by 130 Israeli CEOs. On the eve of his visit India is said to have cancelled a big arm s deal entered into by the Indian Army. However, closer to the visit, the Indian Defence Ministry has announced that India is to buy 131 surface-to-air missiles from Israel in a $70 million deal. This could be part of the earlier envisaged phased purchase. There had been objections to the army’s original deal with the idea to purchase locally turned out Naga missiles but the latter were considered not – tested, heavy and not yet reliable in the field. Indian Armed forces could not take such risks with two big neighbours, China and Pakistan having effective missile power. The latest decision therefore, seems to be a compromise.

During the visit several agreements were scheduled to be signed between the two governmentsincluding cooperation in communications technology and cyber protection and anti-terrorism measures. .

World response

Pakistan media critically commented about the growing close relations of India with Israel under Modi administration. It has so far been closely observing developments during Netyanyahu’s visit to New Delhi. Chinese media too has been silent but the independent South China Morning Post reported IndianDefence Acquisition Council clearing the purchase of assault rifles and carbines worth US$553 million. It said the move comes around six months after India held a months-long stand-off with China at the border of Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim. It further observed that the weapons would be deployed by Indian troops guarding borders with China and Pakistan. These purchases would not include the anti-tank missiles for the purchase of which a an agreement was signed in April last year which later became shrouded in controversy but since cleared according to Jerusalem sources.

What could we in Sri Lanka do watching these developments in the land our big neighbor? Any inspiration on how to fashion our foreign policy? Or just look up with bewilderment at how a big country plays its foreign policy cards to suit her self-interest?


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