INTERVENTION by Israel’s Ambassador to India Naor Gilon in the controversy triggered by his compatriot Nadav Lapid, who was the head of the International Competition Jury at the 53rd International Film Festival of India, has once again underscored the exceptionalism in India-Israel relations.
It is inconceivable that a US ambassador in New Delhi — if there was an incumbent — would apologise for anything any US citizen said in reasonable exercise of his freedom of speech as Lapid did about the film, The Kashmir Files. For the record, the US has had no Ambassador to India during the tenure of President Joe Biden. It is equally inconceivable that Russia’s Ambassador to New Delhi or the United Kingdom’s High Commissioner to India will apologise for what their fellow national said in the discharge of an important duty for which that citizen of theirs had been invited to this country in an official capacity or in any other role.
Some editorials have criticised Gilon for his foray, which was described as “uncalled for”, but that only reinforces the exceptional nature of India’s links with Israel since the founding of the Jewish state. At the second United Nations General Assembly from September to November 1947, India voted against Resolution 181, which midwifed Israel’s birth as a nation, but not before Sardar KM Panikkar, delegate to that session, said Jews had a case for a homeland. The domestic Muslim factor decided India’s “nay” vote on the history-making resolution.
Subsequent correspondence by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, to his interlocutors within the country gave expression to Nehru’s fears that the more vocal Arab countries on Palestine could collectively blackmail India into treating Israel as a diplomatic untouchable. Nehru genuinely feared that this would undermine India’s strategic autonomy, which he considered sacrosanct. Yet, the same domestic compulsions, which forced India to vote against the 1947 resolution on the “Future government of Palestine”, which passed with well over the mandatory two-thirds support in the General Assembly, prevented Nehru from exercising his better judgment.
It was not until PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister in 1991 that a committed effort was made to change India’s policy towards Israel. That effort was exceptional for its diplomatic dare, the full story of which is yet to see the light of day. Then Foreign Secretary JN Dixit, instructed by Rao to work out a fundamental shift in India’s West Asia policy, began the exercise with an unconventional decision to keep his ministry’s West Asia and North Africa division, which covered Israel, completely out of the loop on his intentions. He feared that this division, staffed by diplomats whose orientation was generally pro-Palestine, would leak Rao’s plan. So, he asked a trusted aide, KC Singh, to prepare a working paper on establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Singh was then Joint Secretary in charge of administration in the Ministry of External Affairs and was far removed from anything to do with the West Asia region. But Dixit could trust him on this emerging, highly sensitive scenario.
Dixit told Rao that he could test the waters by voting in the UN General Assembly in favour of an upcoming resolution on December 17, 1991, revoking the world body’s position, since 1975, that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Once again, Rao had to resort to subterfuge: the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) was made up of die-hard minority appeasers, who fortunately had little clue of foreign policy. Some of these Congress heavyweights were also Rao-baiters who thought one of them had a better claim to succeed Rajiv Gandhi after his assassination. Besides, Rao was heading a minority government that was perceived as weak and unstable.
Towards the end of a CCPA meeting, Rao murmured typically to his Cabinet colleagues that a resolution on racism was coming up at the UN and he had instructed “our people” in New York to vote for the resolution. By the time Arjun Singh, who was Rao’s nemesis and pretender to the top job, realised what was happening, the vote was over. The minutes of the fateful CCPA meeting, dictated by Dixit, categorically spelt out that the committee had resolved to vote for repealing the 1975 document, which was not entirely true.
Although India and Israel had no embassies in each other’s capital, the Jewish state had all along been the object of exceptional affection and admiration among the people of this country, barring the minority. No country other than the Soviet Union has been the object of such popular adulation among Indians. So, Rao found it easier than anyone thought to move to the next stage; in January 1992, India established full diplomatic relations with Israel. But Rao did not do much beyond setting up an embassy in Tel Aviv and facilitating reciprocal representation.
Coalition compulsions prevented even the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from expanding the scope of engagement with Israel. A turning point came during the Kargil war in 1999, when India could not get weapon-locating radars to locate Pakistani guns across the border that were pummelling the Indian side. At that time, Israel alone offered to meet India’s critical need for these radars. They airlifted these radars directly to Srinagar, which was another example of exceptionalism in meeting India’s defence needs. The secret airlift — which subsequently became known — brought about a turnaround in the situation on the Kargil front. Over the years, there have been other such examples that made Israel the top defence supplier to India at one point.
Another example of Israeli exceptionalism in engaging India was the former’s wide-ranging outreach to Indian states. Even big powers engaged states through their consulates, with occasional trips by their ambassadors to state capitals and an odd ministerial visit from their headquarters. Not so with Israel, which plunged into dialogues and actions in state capitals, tempting Chief Ministers with Israel’s strengths in irrigation, startups and state-of-the-art technology. Even Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose vote bank was the minority community, fell to Israel’s offers of engagement that could not be resisted. The controversy over The Kashmir Files will, therefore, pass with or without Gilon’s intervention. India-Israel relations have become multifaceted and strong enough to withstand storms in teacups.
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