Pitfalls and Potentialities of the New Diplomacy between India and Israel:
The importance of establishing credibility

M.L. Sondhi


India and Israel became sovereign and independent in the late forties, India on 15th August 1947 and Israel on 14th May 1948.  But it has taken 44 years for the two governments to navigate past obstacles and establish full diplomatic relations.  The establishment of Embassies in the two countries will be a significant step along the road to developing mature bilateral relations, but by itself this will not eliminate conflicts of interest or unnecessary frictions.  Ill considered diplomatic tactics by either country will merely diminish its credibility and make it difficult to gain an understanding of its national priorities and perceptions from the other side.

New Delhi’s stance which is still lingering from the “Zionism is racism” days is made up of rather simplistic and na´ve concepts regarding the character of Israel.  A comprehensive approach to the multi-tiered reality of the Israeli polity must be adopted if India has to relate itself adequately to the changing context of political and security issues in West Asia.  Israel’s political acceptability all over the world has been underestimated in New Delhi where it was not billed as a star performer till it saw the Arab states lose their original political rationale for isolating Israel in one country after another and finally China.  Indian diplomacy also needs to recognise the inherent logic of Israel as a Jewish state.  It does not help to regard the Jewishness of Israel as an anachronistic turn towards theocracy; with its democratically elected institutions and an active public opinion Israel has as much secular-democratic character as India has.  More than anything else, however, Israel has the primary function of providing a sanctuary for the Jews who have suffered persecution all over the world, with the exception of India and perhaps a few other countries.  The political legitimisation of Israel cannot, therefore be understood with comprehending its perennial concern for the Jewish people.  Israel’s retarded and ambiguous evolution towards a Middle Eastern (or West Asian) personality has also not been obvious to New Delhi, where the Western (and pro-US) orientation of Israel has been seen as a dilution of its regional political character.  Over the years Israel has fairly successfully identified the contours of the challenge it has faced from the Arabs, the Iranians and the Turks and has mobilised political and military resources for establishing a framework of open or back-channel diplomatic exchanges and negotiations.  The Indian perception of monolithic Arab unity – the Nasserist governing image – cannot provide guidelines for policy at the regional level where the Israeli perception of the Middle East as a mosaic is more sophisticated and closer to reality.

While it may be true that India has its commitment and responsibilities towards the Palestinians, it will be a mistake to conduct its diplomacy in Israel as the nth Arab state.  A revamped version of the old policy which tilted in favour of the Arabs on every issue and was strategically unidirectional will not help India to link the security, political and economic factors in West Asia to its advantage.  India will have to work out a comprehensive crisis-management approach which would require New Delhi should gain the reputation of being impartial and not appear viscerally anti-Israel in order to gain political capital with the Arabs.  The diplomatic focus will naturally be on how India supports the Madrid Peace Process, and whether it will help both the opposing parties to overcome the prevailing ‘zero-sum’ assumptions.  It will also be flawed and unrealistic to ignore India’s own vital stake in the stabilisation of the Middle East where the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism will exert a negative effect by eroding values of democracy and human rights elsewhere.

What leverage does India have over Israel?  The persecution and oppression of Jews in Europe and the very different experience of the diaspora in India provides the reference point for an embryonic policy of a common Asian political dialogue.  Analysis of the course of events shows that time and again ever since the Bandung Conference, Israel wanted to enter Asia but its efforts were unproductive.  The Indian stance can contribute towards the re-induction of Israel into Asia.  This would be compatible with the stronger political cooperation of Israel with China, Japan and South Korea.  The danger, however, is that India could get into moralistic protestations about Jerusalem or pin its hopes on United States pressure on Israel to make concessions.  The overall effect in either case will be to accentuate Israeli suspicions of India.  It would be preferable for India to make a careful study of all the possible convergences and conflicts on the Jerusalem issue before showing excessive enthusiasm for the Arab position.  The following quotation from a policy paper by Teddy Kollek, the Mayor of Jerusalem sheds some light on the contending perspectives.  “There is one crucial difference between the sacred character of Jerusalem in Christian and Islamic faith on the one hand, and Jewish life on the other.  For Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem contains shrines commemorating the physical life and actions of the founders of the two faiths, meriting and inspiring profound veneration, whereas for Judaism, Jerusalem – and its other personification, Zion – is the symbol of a vocation to national life in the Land of Israel, holy in the sense of being the “Promised Land”.  Christianity and Islam are universal religions with no national or territorial attachments; Judaism, though it aspires to universality, is at the same time firmly bound up with the Jewish people and their land.”

India cannot build a durable relationship with Israel if it fails to comprehend Jerusalem as “the living symbol of Jewish aspirations”.  It would therefore be necessary from the beginning of the full diplomatic relationship to take the appropriate posture which would show Indian sympathy and understanding of this issue and not invite accusations of indifference to Israel’s efforts to achieve religious co-existence in Jerusalem.

It is not too far-fetched to suggest that once both India and Israel realise that both countries want a secure peace, they can cooperate to enhance each other’s basic strategic assets.  The central point of reference on either side should be self-interest, and more pragmatic approaches can encompass a wide range of cultural, scientific and intellectual cooperation that can accompany a strong emphasis on expanding business ties.

Ben Gurion wanted Israel to be a “light unto the nations” and to exert a moral influence among the peoples of the world.  The exigencies of the cold war and its security dilemmas led Israel to develop what has been called “a sort of Machiavellian sophistication” in its decision-making.  For the foreseeable future Israeli diplomats will make every attempt to fortify their positions.  Indian diplomats will also have to pursue tough postures in their dealings with Israel, and this will not harm the bilateral political relationship as long as Indian national interests are being promoted.  Indian diplomacy should not be harnessed as a proxy for the promotion of the policy interests of third countries.  India’s credibility will be undermined if it is perceived by Israel as the “natural ally” of its enemies.  After voting for the repeal of the Zionism equals Racisim resolution and establishing full diplomatic relations, India has to free its foreign policy options from being imprisoned in closed Manichean models.

<< Back