In 1990, David Ivry, the legendary ex-commander of the Israel Air Force, flew to London for an off-the-books meeting with India’s defense minister V.P. Singh. Ivry was serving at the time as director-general of the Defense Ministry, and it was the first time a top Israeli official was going to meet an Indian defense minister.
At the time, Israel and India did not have official diplomatic relations. That would come two years later.
Contacts between the countries got their start in the 1970s and ’80s when small groups of Indian military officers came to Israel to ask for assistance. Some deals were signed through third-party vendors, but most were small and insignificant.
Although India benefited from Israel’s military know-how, it kept the relations secret. A combination of Cold War alignments, fear of alienating its Muslim population, and an interest in maintaining ties with the Arab world kept India from taking its relationship with Israel out into the open.
Israel wanted to take things to the next level. The Indians were looking to upgrade more of their military platforms that were based on old Soviet models and Ivry saw an opportunity.
The meeting with Singh went well, and Ivry received an official invitation to visit India, this time for a meeting with prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, and his counterpart, the director-general of the Indian Defense Ministry. Ivry came bearing a letter from Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s defense minister at the time, in which Rabin wrote to Rao that he looked forward to establishing diplomatic ties with India.
After introductions, Rao asked his staff to leave the room. He wanted a few minutes alone with Ivry to hear directly from the former IAF commander what exactly Israel was proposing.
Ivry gave Rao an overview of the IDF and Israel’s military capabilities. He then showed him the letter from Rabin, and explained what would become key to Israel’s emerging relationship with the South Asian country.
“We don’t have any strings attached to our sales,” Ivry said. “We are a small country. Superpowers attach diplomatic conditions to defense ties. We don’t.”
Rao liked what Ivry had to say.
Before agreeing to the meeting with Ivry, Rao had his Defense Ministry meet with the Pentagon to try to get America to sell India weapons. America said it would agree, but only after India cleaned up its human rights act.
Rao called his Defense Ministry director-general back into the room, and in front of Ivry, gave him the green light to sign $2 billion worth of defense deals with Israel.
It would take some time including learning how to navigate India’s cumbersome bureaucracy, but Ivry’s trip to New Delhi in 1990 ultimately paid off. A few years ago, Israel became one of India’s top arms suppliers, as demonstrated this week by the announcement that a $500 million missile deal between Israel and India – previously canceled – was back on the table.
THE MODEL of how Israel established its ties with India worked over the years with other countries as well. China and Singapore, for example, are two countries whose diplomatic relations with Israel grew out of secret defense ties and arms deals.
It is a model demonstrated by the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was received this week in India. The mere fact that the leader of a country with more than a billion people would take off several days to spend time in the company of a leader of a country with eight million people is amazing on its own. But Narendra Modi did much more. As Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Correspondent Herb Keinon reported from India, in all of his years covering Israeli prime ministers, he has never seen such a reception for an Israeli leader on an overseas trip.
Modi and Netanyahu flew kites together, ate dinner together, spun cotton together, and opened a business conference together. It was an Israeli-Indian love-fest, an example of Israel’s strong international stature.
But it is also an example of what Israel would like to achieve closer to home, specifically throughout the Persian Gulf. Israel reportedly today maintains ties with a number of Gulf states. The question though is whether those reported relations could evolve into something more.
The answer seems to be no. While there have been numerous reports that the interests of Israel and countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates are aligned due to the threat they all face from Iran, it is doubtful that anything will change.
The reason is the Arab street. While the leaders of the respective countries reportedly understand the value in having ties with Israel especially in light of the continued upheaval throughout the Middle East, as long as the conflict continues with the Palestinians, it will be difficult to get that past their people.
NEVERTHELESS, there is room for optimism. The speech Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave this week, while full of hatred and incitement, might actually be the beginning of a process desperately needed. While he attacked US President Donald Trump, announced the end of the Oslo Accords, and repeated lies about the Jewish people and Israel, all of that can now be used for a much-needed paradigm shift away from the model the West has, until now, used to view this conflict.
Abbas’s intransigence is not new. He has been rejecting peace opportunities ever since he took office 14 years ago. But now, with the combination of the Trump administration and the reports of Israeli-Gulf ties, there might be an opportunity to move away from a top-down approach to the conflict to a bottom-up model that is more modest, with smaller, but achievable, goals.
Don’t get me wrong. I still believe that it is in Israel’s long-term interest to disconnect from the Palestinians and for them to have their own state. But for too long, the West has tried to shove a two-state solution down everyone’s throats. The problem is that the Palestinians are not interested. While one could question Netanyahu’s willingness to make the necessary compromises for peace, what Abbas did this week is just further proof of what we already knew: he does not want to be the Palestinian leader who accepts Israel as a Jewish state. If he did, he could try to move forward and put the ball in Netanyahu’s court.
So, what can be done? The opportunities are endless. First and foremost is to focus on building up the Palestinian economy and making it viable for the day that statehood will become possible. Joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial centers is just one example.
Second is to improve the infrastructure – roads, water and electricity – throughout the West Bank for both Israelis and Palestinians. There is a lot Israelis can share with the Palestinian people, particularly when it comes to innovation and hi-tech.
On the diplomatic front, the world can play an important role by setting new goals and standards for how to proceed. Until the Palestinians are ready for peace, we should all stop repeating what has repeatedly evaded this land since the Oslo Accords some 25 years ago. It is time to start working on what is possible.