A Memoir – Background of an Indian prime minister’s visit

July 3, 2017 by Isi Leibler
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This week’s historic visit to Israel by India’s prime minister revived memories of my previous associations with Indian leaders and the Indian Jewish community in the 1980s.

India at that time was still a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, dependent on Arab oil and expatriate income from the Gulf states in addition to accommodating a population of over 140 million Muslims.

Isi Leibler with Indira Gandhi in 1982

I will never forget my unpleasant meeting with the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at her home in New Delhi on December 21, 1981. She bitterly claimed that American Jews had turned the U.S. government and media against her, maligning her because they opposed her policies toward Israel. The discussion became hostile and despite her claim to like Jews, she came close to becoming anti-Semitic. I reminded her—to no avail—that during her childhood in the United Kingdom, Anglo Jews such 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.

India’s policy during the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War basically echoed the Soviet line on Israel. 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 the anti-Israel policies, and if anything, they were even intensified.

But at the same time, India is one country that never had a record of anti-Semitism and, unlike Muslims and Christians, Hindus never saw themselves as triumphant over Judaism or as a proselytizing faith.

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

For many years, I continued to advocate for a change in Indian policy toward Israel. Indian External Affairs Ministry officials listened to me courteously and then politely dismissed whatever was discussed.

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 meeting was problematic as Rao had only been elected a few months earlier, in June 1991. However, thanks to the combined intervention of 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.

This meeting was the first in many years between an Indian prime minister and a global Jewish representative. It became clear very quickly that Rao was far more receptive than his predecessors.

At the time, I reported—on behalf of the World Jewish Congress—that the situation in India was “much more promising … 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 it transpired that 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 he was to make to the United States. The dialogue was extremely tense and Rao clearly sought to conclude the meeting.

I took one of the greatest political gambles of my life and with restrained chutzpah, told Rao 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 I was confident that if diplomatic relations were to be postponed prior to his arrival in the U.S., he would find himself treated like Saddam Hussein and an utter pariah. I will never forget the sudden silence my outburst provoked.

The Australian ambassador, whom I had urged not to participate, knowing this could be an unpleasant meeting, sat there paralysed. Rao, after a few moments, responded with a tirade against 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, some 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 its relationship with Israel to full ambassadorial level.

I subsequently flew again to India, met Rao who had enjoyed a successful visit to the U.S., thanked him for his support and conveyed to him Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s appreciation for India’s vote in the U.N. 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 and which will inevitably become a superpower. Upon completion of military service many Israelis have enjoyed prolonged visits to India and built up people-to-people associations. We have developed a very powerful defense relationship and Israel and India have become major trading partners. Politically also, India is beginning to publicly demonstrate its affinity toward Israel.

Nothing highlights this significance more than the historic first visit to Israel of an Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, who proudly and openly declares his friendship 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—first and foremost, India. Those of us who were involved in promoting relations between Israel and India in the 1980s and 1990s never dreamed how strong and important those ties would become in just a few decades.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

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