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What India can learn from Israel

LiveMint logoLiveMint 29-05-2017 Rupa Subramanya

The year 2017 marks important anniversaries for Israel: the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the first official British declaration recognizing the need for a Jewish state; 1947 when the United Nations passed a resolution in support of a Jewish state, a year before its creation; and 1967, which saw the Six-Day War resulting in an overwhelming Israeli victory over Arab aggressors, establishing Israel’s control over all of Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza, Golan, and Sinai.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel. To commemorate this important anniversary, and by remarkable coincidence coinciding with all these other important anniversaries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Israel on 4-6 July, in what will be another first: the first time ever that an Indian prime minister will visit Israel.

It’s noteworthy that the customary add-on, a visit to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is being skipped. This signals in no uncertain terms that India no longer hyphenates Israel and Palestine and acknowledges what has been evident below the radar screen for years, the enormous importance of the India-Israel bilateral relationship. Whether it’s military cooperation, trade or combatting Islamist extremism in their respective neighbourhoods, Israel is fast becoming one of India’s staunchest and most important partners. Credit for the ramping up of this long overdue boost to the relationship is due both to Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A recent visit to Israel reinforced all of the reasons I already believed India and Israel are natural partners. That begins with the natural affinity and warmth between the two peoples. Israelis love to travel to India and love seeing Indians in their own country.

India is perhaps unique in having a long history of Jewish migration without any persecution of the Jews from the indigenous population. Anti-semitism came to India with the arrival of European colonizers and in fact it was the Maharaja of Cochin who sheltered members of the ancient Jewish settlement when they were marauded by the Portuguese. Much later, Baghdadi Jews played an important part in Bombay’s rise as a modern metropolis and commercial centre. Indeed, one of the so-called original merchant princes of Bombay was David Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew. As it happens, about 80,000 Indian Jews have settled in Israel and are great ambassadors for India there. They contribute to India’s soft power in the Israeli consciousness which is considerable.

In the opposite direction, India has much to learn from Israeli’s application of hard power, living as they do in a part of the world where most of their neighbours don’t even acknowledge their right to exist and many are trying actively to wipe them off the map. India too faces existential threats but for too long, our political elite were both unwilling to acknowledge this fact and to draw the correct lessons from the Israeli experience.

In conversations with senior Israeli military and security officials, it became clear that the Israeli approach is to balance strength and military and strategic superiority and a focus on deterrence on the one hand, with the ability to be compassionate and emphatic on the other. Thus, it is little known that on Israel’s northern border with Syria on the Golan Heights, where civil war is raging between government and rebel forces, those in need of medical care, often injured in the shelling and firing, cross over to the Israeli side and get treated at Israeli hospitals free of cost. These were people who grew up thinking of Israel as their mortal enemy that needed to be destroyed.

It’s striking that Israeli settlers have ventured right up to the UN administered buffer zone between Israeli occupied Golan, neighbouring Syria and Lebanon, confident that Israeli forces will protect them. There’s a good reason: as several security officials said, their goal is to ensure life is as normal as it can be for those they protect.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Jammu and Kashmir, where indigenous Pandits were driven out while the Indian state looked the other way and in which it’s not even legally permissible for non-Kashmiri Indians to settle there. Nor can Indian security forces guarantee safety in regions affected by Maoist and other insurgencies.

India could well take a cue from how Israel maintains stringent external and internal security, allowing Israeli settlements right up to the border of conflict zones. In India, by contrast, we seem to be in perennial reaction mode, trying to contain situations as they’re unfolding rather than pre-empting trouble before it happens.

Israelis understand that genuine compassion and empathy even toward those bent on destroying them comes from a position of strength, not of weakness. But all of this requires political will and a deeper commitment and investment to our military and security establishment. The former requires that there be a broad political consensus that India faces existential threats from within and without. The latter requires taking these existential threats we face seriously as the Israelis do theirs.

In 1967, Israel faced a threat to its very existence from Arab neighbours and vanquished its enemies. In 1962, India faced abject defeat at the hands of Chinese neighbours who continue to occupy some of our territory. When will India get its act together and learn from Israel?

Rupa Subramanya is a Mumbai-based economist, researcher and commentator.

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