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July 4, 2017 10:24 am

A Historical Perspective on Modi’s Visit to Israel

avatar by Isi Leibler

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India Prime Minister Indira Ghandi (left) with Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran (center) and Farah Pahlavi (right) in 1970. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This week’s historic visit to Israel by India’s prime minister has revived memories of my previous associations with Indian leaders and the Indian Jewish community during the 1980s.

At that time, India was still a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and dependent upon Arab oil and expatriate income from the Gulf states. India also had to accommodate a population of more than 140 million Muslims.

I will never forget my unpleasant meeting with the country’s late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, at her home in New Delhi on December 21, 1981. She bitterly claimed that American Jews had turned the US government and media against her, because they opposed her policies toward Israel. The discussion became hostile, and — despite her claim to like Jews — she came close to becoming antisemitic.

I reminded her, to no avail, that during her childhood in the United Kingdom, Anglo Jews such as the late Harold Laski — a leading professor of political science at the London School of Economics — were among the most fervent supporters of Indian independence. That meeting left me deeply distressed and pessimistic about prospects for the future of Indian-Israeli relations.

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India’s policy during the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War basically echoed the Soviet line on Israel. During her years in power, Mrs. Gandhi sought to strengthen Indian support for the Arab world and intensified her hostility against Israel. When her son Rajiv became prime minister following her assassination in 1984, he maintained her anti-Israel policies; if anything, he even intensified them.

Yet India is also one country that never had a record of antisemitism, and — unlike Muslims and Christians — Hindus never saw themselves as triumphant over Judaism.

Although the bulk of the Indian Jewish community made aliyah, they did so freely, and the remnant of the ancient Jewish community of Bene Israel — which claims ancestry back to the Lost Tribes of Israel — still maintain their synagogues and community centers.

For many years, I continued to advocate for a change in Indian policy toward Israel. This did not happen. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s had global implications.

In November 1991, at the request of Dr. Moshe Yegar of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, I sought a meeting with the newly elected Indian prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao. Yegar had met him in July 1991 following the kidnapping of Israeli tourists in Kashmir, but the meeting deteriorated into a diatribe against Israel on Palestinian rights.

The timing for my requested meeting was problematic, because Rao had just been elected a few months earlier — in June 1991. However, thanks to the combined intervention of US Congressman Stephen Solarz, then head of the House Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, and then-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, my request for an audience was reluctantly granted.

The meeting between Rao and myself was the first in many years between an Indian prime minister and a global Jewish representative. And it became clear very quickly that Rao was far more receptive to my message than his predecessors.

At the time, I reported — on behalf of the World Jewish Congress — that the situation in India was “much more promising” for Indian-Israeli relations. I said that there was “no personal, irrational impediment to improved ties with Israel. … The fact that Rao agreed to the meeting at a highly inconvenient time for himself … indicates the seriousness he attaches to improved ties with world Jewry as an important element in India’s orientation in the post-Cold War era. This, in itself, is highly encouraging and augurs well for the future.”

But in the years that followed, there were only minor changes and no substantive improvement to India’s policies. While agreeing to expand the Israeli consulates in Kerala and Mumbai, the deputy foreign minister stressed that India would not even contemplate full diplomatic relations with Israel until substantial progress was achieved in the peace process with the Palestinians.

In early 1992, again through the intervention of Evans and Solarz, Rao granted me another interview. This took place two weeks prior to a critical visit that he was to make to the United States. The dialogue was extremely tense and Rao clearly sought to conclude his meeting with me.

I then took one of the greatest political gambles of my life, and told Rao that I was no longer conveying a formal message — neither from the World Jewish Congress nor the Israeli government — but spoke as a private citizen. I told him that I was confident that if diplomatic relations were to be postponed prior to his arrival in the US, he would find himself treated like Saddam Hussein, and as an utter pariah. I will never forget the sudden silence that my outburst provoked.

The Australian ambassador, whom I had urged not to participate in the meeting, sat there paralyzed. Rao, after a few moments, responded to my impertinence. Although Rao kept his cool and responded courteously, I left the meeting shaken, believing that I had crossed a red line and would have to bear the consequences.

To my astonishment and joy, weeks later — just prior to Rao’s departure for the United States — India announced full diplomatic relations with Israel. Yegar at the Israeli Foreign Ministry subsequently wrote that he felt my meeting had played a critical role in consolidating Rao’s decision to upgrade India’s relationship with Israel to full ambassadorial level.

I subsequently flew again to India, met Rao — who had enjoyed a successful visit to the US — thanked him for his support, and conveyed to him Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s appreciation for India’s vote in the UN for the repeal of the Resolution 3379, which determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

Now, a quarter of a century later, Israel can be proud of an excellent relationship with India — a country with a population of 1.3 billion and with one of the world’s fastest expanding economies. India will inevitably become a superpower.

Upon completion of their military service, many Israelis have enjoyed prolonged visits to India and built up people-to-people relationships. Israel and India have developed a very powerful defense relationship, and our countries have also become major trading partners. Politically, India is also beginning to publicly demonstrate its affinity toward Israel.

Nothing highlights this progress more than the historic first visit to Israel of an Indian prime minister — Narendra Modi, who proudly and openly declares his friendship with Israel and emphasizes the importance of our mutual ties. When critics and doomsday prophets remonstrate that Israel is facing political isolation, one need only look at the rapidly improving relations between Israel and nations in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. Among these countries, the first and foremost is India. Those of us who were involved in promoting relations between the countries in the 1980s and 1990s never dreamed how strong and important those ties would become in just a few decades.

Isi Leibler’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com.

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