His Excellency Mark Sofer, Israeli Ambassador to India and Sri Lanka, gave series of fascinating talks on 19-20 February, under the auspices of the ZF. He began by looking back at the dreadful terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26-9 November 2008. Of the ten terrorists, 2 were dedicated to finding a small out-of-the way house used by Chabad – a horrific demonstration of the extent of the attackers’ hatred. The terrorists had very sophisticated equipment, indicating that they had help -- from whom, remains unclear.
But such are the bonds between the two nations, the attack was unlikely to prove a ‘defining moment’. Total trade (imports plus exports, excluding defence) amounts to some $4,4 billion annually, for example, and it is reasonably balanced. Delhi is the biggest Israeli Embassy in Asia with 120 staff.
The two countries have much in common. Both are former British Mandate areas; the results of divisions into areas including a Muslim one; both experienced wars on the road to Independence; are democracies in Asia; both were ‘nonaligned’ nations during the Cold War period. Note that the Muslims in India are Sufi Muslims and very different from the Shi’ites and Sunni. They are not militant. They are a long established community.
Yet bilateral relations were not always so close and good. In November 1947 at the UN, India voted against the establishment of Israel. The reasons can be found in the war with Pakistan and the Muslim minority (around 12%). Also Nehru’s partner in leading the nonaligned movement was Nasser (along with Tito). As recently as 1991, Indian passports specified that their bearers could not travel to Israel. Secularism was important to the Indian government and Israel was seen as a theocratic State.
In 1992 after the collapse of Communism, things changed. ‘Nonaligned’ lost its meaning and there was no longer any ideological barrier to capitalism. Also no Muslim nation (with the strange exception of Saddam’s Iraq) supported India over Kashmir. Israel changed too.
The Ambassador emphasised the enormous scale of the swing in the early ‘90s in the relationship – it is hard to fully explain.
Indians have great regard for Israel’s technological achievements, especially in the agricultural and irrigation field – they speak of ‘making the desert bloom’. There is no antisemitism – they do not know what the word means.
Nevertheless there remain pragmatic obstacles to the extent to which the interests of the two countries can converge. India for example is wholly dependent on oil imports and there are around 6m Indian expatriates living and working in the Gulf. No Indian Foreign Minister had made an official visit to Israel or the Palestinian areas for seven years. The new US Administration has a difficult balance to preserve. On the one hand, India is a natural ally but on the other, there are major concerns about stability in Pakistan – which has nuclear capability.