By Amb Virendra Gupta
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed visit to Israel, perhaps on his return from G-20 summit in Germany in July this year would be a high water-mark of our growing bilateral ties with Israel. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did visit India in 2003 during Vajpayee’s government, there has been no return visit from our side so far. Modi would be the first ever Indian Prime Minister to embark on a visit to Israel. 2017 marks the silver jubilee of the establishment of our diplomatic relations with Israel and that makes the visit truly special.
For me, personally, it is an occasion for fond recollection, since I was tasked with the responsibility of opening the Indian Embassy in Dan Panorama hotel close to Jaffa on the sea shore in Tel Aviv in May 1992. The warm reception accorded to my small team from India by the Israeli government and the people alike made us feel completely at home. For the 70000 strong Indian Jewish community, to see the Indian flag fly in Israel was a long cherished dream and it went out of its way to make us feel comfortable and appropriately networked in the establishment. Zubin Mehta, the famous music composer was choked with emotion while conducting the Indian national anthem when our first ambassador presented his credentials at the State House.
Right from the beginning, there was strong interest on both sides to take our bilateral relations forward rapidly, as if to make up for the lost time. Areas of water conservation, agriculture, drip irrigation and solar energy, in which Israel had registered remarkable success, drew particular attention in India and Prof Swaminathan was deputed to Israel by the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao soon after opening of our Mission to recommend how we could proceed with cooperation in those areas in concrete terms.
At the political level the lead at that time was taken by our state governments particularly since at the federal government level we were still somewhat hesitant and ambivalent with regard to the visibility for our relations with Israel. Incidentally, the first high level visitor to Israel, within a few weeks of the establishment of our Mission, was by Chiman Bhai Patel, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and he was so impressed with the technologies available in Israel that he arranged a steady flow of business and PSU delegations from his state in the following weeks to ensure adoption of those technologies and practices in Gujarat.
Our foreign policy had traditionally been driven by our overriding concern to safeguard our key interests in the Middle East which hosted a large number of Indian workers and which was our major supplier of oil and gas. As such the decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel was admittedly a bold one but the subsequent years saw a fine balancing act on our part to ensure that our growing linkages with Israel were not taken amiss in the Arab capitals.
Viewed in this context, the decision by PM Modi to undertake a stand-alone visit to Israel without combining that with a trip to Palestine, brushing aside possible objections from Arab countries and domestic lobbies, amounts to a significant shift in the basic orientation of our foreign policy. For long, we have allowed our policy to remain a hostage to ideological high moral parameters. PM Modi has injected the much needed realism in dealing with other nations and critical global issues, benchmarking our foreign policy on the consideration of ‘national interests’.
At a broader level, this new approach is reflective of the newfound maturity and self-confidence on the part of India. We have shown requisite resolve to develop our relations independently with competing power centres in the world in a manner designed to optimize our interests. Questions have no doubt been raised but we have assertively deflected those maintaining our sovereign right to calibrate our relations with different countries in an independent manner. That is the essence of Nonalignment which we so loudly professed in the yesteryears. There is no reason why the same principle should not be applied to our relations with Israel and Palestine without any hyphenation and need to indulge in hypocrisy.
Our commitment to Palestinian cause has always remained immutable. We fully support the aspirations of Palestinian people to an independent State and remain firmly opposed to illegal settlement activities in the Palestinian territories even as our relations with Israel have advanced to strategic level. Using the same logic, our principled stand on the Palestinian issue should not be allowed to impact on harnessing our bilateral relations with Israel insofar as those benefit our nation.
Our economic and business linkages with Israel have already grown to a robust level with crucial Israeli investments in agriculture and high tech areas. Annual bilateral trade is nearing US $ 5 billion mark without including the rapidly expanding defence trade. Israel has indeed proved to be a reliable partner and supplied the urgently needed defence equipment and ammunition to us during the 1999 Kargil War. We are already collaborating in the development of wide range of weapon systems including missiles, UAVs, night vision equipment and electronic warfare systems. Much of the technologies available from Israel are indigenously developed without any encumbrance of end-use requirement. Viewed differently, the entry of Israel in our defence supplies market puts competitive pressure on our erstwhile suppliers and it makes enormous business sense to fully leverage diversification of our options in order to secure most optimum terms for large defence purchases.
We have also expanded our cooperation with Israel in combating terrorism. Both our countries are targeted by Islamic terrorist organizations and it is only logical that we pool our resources and share intelligence in dealing with this menace effectively.
Despite our divergent approach towards Iran and Syria, we have not hesitated to develop close bilateral relations with Israel which have proved advantageous to us. The pragmatic handling of our ties with Israel indeed characterizes the growing maturity and confidence in the overall conduct of our foreign policy in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Modi’s anticipated historic visit shall propel India-Israel relations to a hitherto unreached level and dimension. From civilisational friends we also evolve into pragmatic and strategic partners.
(The author served as Indian Ambassador to many countries including South Africa before his retirement from the Indian Foreign Service recently. He opened the Indian Embassy in Israel in May 1992 and now holds the position of President of the International Cooperation Council, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own)