India cozying up to Israel
New Indian Express (Chennai), Friday July 27 2007
As the CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury was promising his party’s unwavering commitment to the Palestinians, the Government of India was singing a different song. He was attending the 25th Congress of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash), in the Israeli town of Nazareth and the event also coincided with the 40th anniversary of the June 1967 war which resulted in the Israeli capture of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In his subsequent report to the party weekly People’s Democracy, Yechury described his visit to 'Palestinian territories’ even though Nazareth is an Israeli town. The Israel part of his trip apparently was treated as ‘private’ and even those sections of media which are friendly to him choose to remain visibly silent.
Reasons are not difficult to fathom. In the summer of 2000 veteran Communist leader and the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu went to Israel as part of his last foreign trip before demitting office. Coming against the background of prolonged opposition and reservations over the normalisation of relations with Israel, this was seen as a political coup. While many Central and State leaders had visited Israel since relations were established in January 1992, the visit of Basu symbolised the broad consensus towards normalisation. It was seen by many that despite reservations about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, there was widespread agreement on improving the bilateral ties.
The outbreak of al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, however, complicated the matters and bilateral ties came under stress, especially in the public domain. Meanwhile, the visit of Basu was used by critics on the far Left to question the pro-Palestinian credentials of the CPM. Yechury therefore, does not wish to create another controversy over his ‘visit’ to Israel, even if it was to attend events organised by the Israeli Communist Party. However, the Left faces a far more serious challenge over India’s Israel policy. For the past few years various Left parties including the CPM have been demanding India to reverse its policy.
The BJP’s moving India closer to Israel and its rolling out a red-carpet welcome to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003 came under severe criticism, condemnation and protests. When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, a visible change in India’s policy towards Israel was one of their principle demands vis-a-vis the UPA. Largely due to pressures from the Left the Common Minimum Programme of the ruling coalition spoke of India’s 'decades-old commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own.’Soon after UPA came to power Prakash Karat reiterated his party’s demand that India should end its ‘special relationship’ with Israel.
In April 2005 during the 18th Congress of the CPM West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattcharjee moved a resolution that condemned Israel for its ‘‘brutal occupation’’ of Palestinian territories and demanded that India should snap all military ties with Israel. At periodic intervals various leaders of the Indian Left have been demanding a departure from the policies of the previous NDA government vis-a-vis Israel.
The response of the UPA government has been entirely different. Wherever possible it was accommodative of the Left even on Israel. In 2005, speaking at the UN, as part of the Indian delegation Yechury underscored the basic Indian objections to the security fence/wall that Israel has been constructing. According to him, ‘‘As we have stated in the past, no one could have objections to the construction of the wall in areas coinciding with the green line. However, its encroachment on Palestinian land and interests creates great hardship for the people affected by its construction and exacerbates the situation.’
Likewise, during the Lebanese war in the summer of last year, India was initially critical of the Hezbollah and demanded the unconditionl release of two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping precipitated the crisis. In subsequent days, partly due to pressures from the Left, the UPA modified its stand. The unanimous resolution adopted by the Lok Sabha on July 31 was highly critical of Israel and its attacks on the Lebanese civilians and infrastructures. It was, however, silent on the Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israeli civilian population. However, on the more substantial issue of military cooperation, Manmohan Singh could not accommodate the Left.
On May 16, Defence Minister A K Antony informed the Rajya Sabha that defence ’’purchases from Israel during the period 2002-2007 have been over US$ 5 billion.‘‘ Ingenious ones could argue that much of the contracts were signed during the previous NDA government and were delivered during the past three years of the UPA rule. However, this was the first time that India has put an official number to the defence acquisitions from Israel.
Any doubts about the reluctance of the present government to deal seek military ties with Israel were dispelled by the Cabinet Committee on Security. On July 12, chaired by the Prime Minister the supreme decision making body cleared a Rs 10,000 crores (US $ 2.5 billion) joint venture with Israel on a new generation of missiles capable of striking at aircraft and other aerial targets. This marks a new beginning in Indo-Israeli military cooperation. From its erstwhile cash-and-carry-approach, both countries are now entering a new phase of joint research and development. Last summer what would have been the first visit of a Defence Minister to Israel was cancelled due to the Lebanese war.
In short, the Indian defence establishment not only rejected the demands of the Left to distance itself from Israel but also took additional steps to consolidate and strengthen defence cooperation with Israel. In the past such decisions could have been blamed on the Hindutva factor and the desire of the BJP to bring India closer to the Jewish State. Unfortunately for the Left, it is the UPA, especially the Congress party, which is bringing India closer to the Israeli defence establishment.
In 1992 it was Congress leader P V Narasimha Rao who normalised relations with Israel and 15 years later, it was another Congress Prime Minister who endorsed joint defence research with Israel. These developments highlight the limitations of the Left in influencing India’s Israel policy. At the same time, they also highlight that blinded by ideology, these parties are not able to see bigger picture clearly. Their stand is not only at variance with the Indian Government but also with the wider Middle East. As one Palestinian official told the Indian media in April 2005, "’We are not asking our friends to cut relations with Israel. What is important for us is the full support of India towards peace, towards the legality, towards the international resolution of the Palestine dispute.”