Israel has been in the news in the context of the Prime Minister’s visit and I may be forgiven for a touch of nostalgia. I was the first Indian journalist to visit Israel after an Australian fanatic had set fire to the pulpit of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in August 1969. The Arab World was ablaze.
Indian passports in those days were not valid for South Africa, Israel and Southern Rhodesia. Under a special dispensation you could obtain a separate passport for travel to countries with which India did not have diplomatic ties. Israelis were more practical: They pinned a piece of paper for entry and exit which could be pulled out when travelling to other countries.
The reception I received at Ben Gurion airport was the stuff of fairytales for a reporter in his 20s. Never will Jerusalem Municipality have a public relations officer more beautiful than Bathsheba Herman.
Something that had not touched the Israelis then was arrogance. They came across as clever, wise, modest people, working diligently on their Kibbutz, the typically Jewish cooperatives, where inequalities were not discernible. It was possible to contemplate Fa Giladi, the exquisite Kibbutz in the shadow of Mt. Hermon, as the dream location for research on the Palestinian issue.
The simplicity of the people helped tone down shades of Zionism instilled in us and which was the bane of the Palestinian people. Ambassadors like John Kenneth Galbraith held Pandit Nehru in their thrall with their intellect. But during the Indira Gandhi years, changes were creeping across the diplomatic corps. There were various ways to gauge how well informed an Ambassador was. A simple test could be this: Was the ambassador a regular fixture at the New Year-eve party hosted by Indira Gandhi’s leftist adviser, editor of Seminar, Romesh Thapar. By this and several other criteria the trophy belonged to Clovis Maksoud, Arab League’s first ambassador, articulate, even bombastic, with an unerring eye for New Delhi’s well-groomed ladies. His role in sensitising the New Delhi elite to the intricacies of the Palestinian case must never be underestimated.
Nehru as leader of the Non-Aligned and Afro-Asian bloc obviously had a large constituency among left liberals and Muslims. His charm offensive even on the Arabs worked such magic that Raees Amrohvi, an Urdu poet from Pakistan, was moved to write a quatrain:
“Jup raha hai aaj mala ek Hindu ki Arab Barhman zaa de mein shaane dilbari aisi to ho! Hikmat e Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru ki qasam Mar mitey Islam jispar, kafiri aisi to ho!” (What a spell this Brahmin has cast on the Arabs, Who now chant his name on their beads. Look at the magic of this kafir (non-believer); Believers of the Arab world lie at his feet!)
Until 1990s, it was anti-intellectual to cast positive light on the Israeli case. When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1984, he was advised by Muslim Congressmen in his vicinity (but totally out of touch with the community) not to upgrade relations with Israel because that would adversely affect the party’s Muslim support.
When I argued against this line in the Indian Express, Rajiv had it expanded into an official note. Muslim leaders, such as they were, and the Mullah had shackled the community with issues like Shah Bano, Salman Rushdie, Babri Masjid, Muslim character of Aligarh Muslim University and now relations with Israel. What any backward community needed was employment, education, entrepreneurial help, I wrote.
After Rajiv was assassinated half way through the 1991 General Elections, P.V. Narasimha Rao upgraded relations with Israel in 1992. There was not a whimper from the community.
Initially, relations were more or less mechanically upgraded. Absence of any real content in the relationship invited Shimon Peres to quip in an interview with me: “Indo-Israeli relations are like French perfume — to be smelt not drunk.”
An episode firmed up my appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian two-state process.
It was a Shabath lunch, at a friend’s house in Herzilia. Among this very small group happened to be a person at one end of the lawn, wreathed in cigarette smoke, a glass of red wine in one hand, rapidly replenished, obviously revelling in the company of three well-groomed ladies who had formed an admiring circle around him. It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, lighting one Kent after another, like Belmondo in a Godard film.
He came across at first as a shy man but once he opened up, he was transparent and obviously trustworthy. His approach to Oslo was not at a variance from another lovable Israeli, Yossi Beilin, very much the author of the Oslo accords.
Obsession with survival and security had injected some iron in the Israeli soul, but the Jewish state became hard as nails after the 9/11 wars, Islamophobia, and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister who visited India on the first anniversary of 9/11, just when the war-on-terror rhetoric was being amplified here too.
Sensitive defence deals with Israel begun under Atal Behari Vajpayee were boosted by Manmohan Singh. The Palestinian issue, which was highest priority up to Indira Gandhi, dipped in saliency.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, however, is fired by an atavistic Hindutva adoration for a small country on top of its mischievous Muslim neighbours. Ramallah has been bypassed, of course. But it should not be lost on the insiders that during the September Non-Aligned summit in Venezuela the Indian delegation received instructions from South Block to drop the routine reference to the Palestinian issue altogether. It was a tradition from the earliest days of NAM.
No, Ramallah was not just bypassed; Palestine has been downgraded to the level of irrelevance.