Though some observers described it as path breaking, the recent trip to Israel by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the culmination of a path paved by visionary predecessors. The relations between India and Israel, dissimilar in almost every respect, can nevertheless be described as only natural, and certainly not as an American scholar had described it—unlikely. From historical and geopolitical perspectives, India-Israel relations were destined to be warm, close and meaningful.
Why then did it take the long period between 1948, when Israel became independent, and 1992, when diplomatic relations were established between the two countries? The tortuous history of how the two “natural” allies groped for a way out, stopped short of moving ahead, and then advanced once again, should be an interesting lesson in the history of diplomacy.
Even more surprising is the fact that even though there was no diplomatic relationship, a very vital military relationship had been built up since 1962. Israeli archives recently revealed that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, highly perturbed over the “Great Chinese Betrayal” in October 1962, sent a cable to his Israeli counterpart, Ben Gurion, on 27 October. The reply came on 2 November, reading, “All our efforts have been and are directed to the preservation of peace—in our area and throughout the world. Jerusalem, the name of our capital in Hebrew, means the city of peace. I am in total agreement with the views expressed by your Excellency that it is incumbent upon us to do all in our power.”
So far, so good. Then intervened India’s pro-Arab policy and Nehru was reduced to making a ridiculous rider, that arms must be shipped without the Israeli flag. Ben Gurion put his foot down, saying, “No flag. No weapons.” Nehru bowed down, and the military ties began. Today, the relations have reached huge proportions, with India entering into defence deals worth over $2 billion this year.
As a matter of fact, Nehru even “briefly” considered inviting Israel to the Bandung conference in 1955, but scotched the idea when the pro-Arab policy loomed large on his horizon. “The public visibility of the ties has been conditioned to what party holds power in New Delhi,” says Indian-American scholar Jayita Sarkar.
Each time since India had faced war, 1965, 1971 and 1999, Israel has stood by sending vitally needed weapons and intelligence systems, filling up dangerous gaps in the former’s defence capabilities. It even lobbied, along with India, with the United States during the Kargil war in order to meet India’s needs. It is fairly certain that without the timely Israeli support in providing weapons, intelligence systems and intelligence, the war would have been prolonged, perhaps forcing India to cross the border, which Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was determined not to.
It is in this backdrop that we recall the signal contribution made by Prof M.L. Sondhi towards bringing the two “natural but sequestrated” allies together over a long period—to be precise, between 1965 and 1992. Perhaps the best summation of Sondhi’s contribution in this regard was made by an Israeli diplomat, Dr Moshe Yegar, on 2 February 1992.
He said, “The long and, sometimes, the painful process of normalising diplomatic relations between India and Israel, which went on for some four decades, has finally reached its satisfying and, even in this new process, happy conclusion. No one was more devoted to it than you, with your never diminishing belief, optimism and tenacious efforts. You have secured your place of honour in this most exciting chapter of the history of modern diplomacy. I join all your friends in Israel in saluting you and in expressing our deep sense of appreciation and gratitude. A new chapter in the relations between our two countries and our two peoples begin now. We have to give sufficient meaning to these relations and fill them with contents. There is no doubt in my mind that you will be among those who will occupy a prominent place.”
Nehru was highly perturbed over the “Great Chinese Betrayal” in October 1962 and sought help from his Israeli counterpart Ben Gurion. But then intervened India’s pro-Arab policy and Nehru was reduced to making a ridiculous rider, that arms must be shipped without the Israeli flag.
Writing in Patriot (30 September 1988) Sondhi re-examined India-Israel relations in the following manner: “The lack of understanding between New Delhi and Tel Aviv and the Arab pressure on India not to establish full-scale diplomatic relations has been a recurrent theme in commentaries on India-Israel relations. A great paradox of Indian foreign policy is that, without ambassador-level diplomatic relations with Israel, we have little leverage to secure real and tangible benefits for our Arab friends and in particular for the Palestinians. The time may not be distant when the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) may play its ‘Israel card’ and find a way out of the prolonged political crisis by evolving a broad strategic concept, which is appropriate to the new correlation of forces in West Asia.” He was effectively arguing that even if India wanted to help its Arab friends, the best course would be to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel and that it was doing the exact opposite by refusing to do so on the pretext of Arab opposition.
The false starts to bilateral relations continued after 1955. The very next year the Israeli Foreign Minister (later Prime Minister) Moshe Sharett was visiting New Delhi, when the combined Anglo-French-Israeli attack on the Suez Canal began; his scheduled talk at the Indian Council of World Affairs was peremptorily stalled, and an angry Nehru cancelled his appointment with the visiting dignitary.
Prof Sondhi, whose interest in Israel grew in a slow process, first visited the country in 1964. His most memorable meeting during this brief stay was with David Ben Gurion. While Ben Gurion penned a lengthy entry in his diary about Sondhi, journalist Khushwant Singh, who visited the Ben Gurions a little later, recalled Paula Ben Gurion reminiscing about the Indian, “‘So handsome and so clever. I hope he is Prime Minister of India one day,’ she chortled in her Brooklyn Yiddish accent.”
Sondhi again met Ben Gurion by accident when the India-Pakistan war of 1965 was on and his plane was diverted to Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion advised him to meet Moshe Dayan. While the latter stunned Sondhi by suggesting that India should open a second front by attacking East Pakistan, he snorted at the Indian’s reference to the usual refrain of normalisation of bilateral relations, commenting that it was pointless to wait indefinitely for that to happen, and instead Israel would be ready to ship munitions and military hardware in “crate marked pharmaceuticals to be landed on the western coast of India”. The message was conveyed to Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s principal private secretary, Lalit Sen. The Israeli supplies, thereafter, began to come.
Sondhi also played a major role in a crisis that erupted six months after the two countries had begun to take swift steps to normalise relations—the kidnapping of five Israeli tourists vacationing in a houseboat on the Dal Lake, Srinagar, in June 1991. Sondhi helped the Israeli diplomat Yegar, then negotiating with the Indian government for the rescue of the hostages, to meet R.N. Kao, the former head of the Research and Analytical Wing. Thereafter, a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra was set up, again through Sondhi’s efforts. Chandra eventually suggested that Israel help India secure billions of dollars from the World Bank and the Export-Import Bank to tide over a very serious foreign exchange crisis facing India at the time. He pointed out that the Jewish lobby in the United States was resisting the Indian approach because of its anti-Israel policy.
On 10 January 1992, Sondhi urged Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to “immediately” establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. In the same month, this happened, the process having been set in motion for many months and now, propelled by the smooth passage of the aid from the World Bank and the Export-Import Bank.
Nearly three years later, Sondhi was honoured as a pioneer of India-Israel friendship with a special award at a public ceremony held at the Siri Fort auditorium in south Delhi in September 1995. Ambassador Epfraim Dowek said he believed that it was high time to pay back an “old debt of gratitude” to Sondhi and a few others for their role in laying the foundations of the thriving bilateral relationship.
Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.