Diplomacy: Looking past Mumbai

How mega-terror attack is impacting the strong, but complex, relationship between India and Israel.

Chabad House raid Mumbai  (photo credit: AP)
Chabad House raid Mumbai
(photo credit: AP)
Amid the scores of letters, calls and e-mail messages that flooded into the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi this week following the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai, two stood out in the mind of Ambassador Mark Sofer. The first were numerous offers from good, well-meaning Indians to adopt little Moshe Holtzberg, the two-year-old son of Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who were murdered in the Chabad House. And the second was a communiqué issued by the All India Organization of Imams of Mosques, an umbrella organization representing some 300,000 imams in a country that - with 150 million Muslims out of a total population of more than a billion - has the second largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia). In the press release, the secretary-general of the organization appealed to all imams and muftis to "announce in the prayer this coming Friday that they are against any terrorism, and deeply aggrieved by the loss of human lives, especially the brutal killing of Jews." What that statement shows - a statement that were it issued in an Arab country after a terrorist attack would lead some to question whether the end of days was not close at hand - is that India is different; in India, conventional wisdom does not apply. And that holds true, as well, for Indian-Israeli relations, a topic that has come under much scrutiny this week as a result of the Israeli/Jewish angle in the Mumbai tragedy. FOR JEWISH Israelis, one question the attack has pushed to the forefront of public discourse is what impact it will have on Indo-Israeli ties. Will it cement them? Will it bring the countries closer together? Will it ram home to Indians what Israelis face? (This, actually, is a rather uniquely Israeli way of looking at the world, because it is doubtful many Americans or Brits are asking the same types of questions regarding US-Indo, or British-Indo ties, even though their nationals were also killed in the carnage.) According to Sofer, the attack will give the Indian public a much greater understanding of what Israel faces vis-à-vis terrorism. "Israel benefits anyway from a great deal of good will in India," he said. "I think this will feed into it and generate more. The fear of international terror is much stronger in India than it was before." Sofer characterized the relationship with India as "warm," and said it wasn't common to see anti-Israeli articles in the media. "There is still an occasional dyed-in-the-wool, old-style diatribe," he said. "But in the younger generation, in the new India, in the up-and-coming, dynamic economic community, in the business, journalistic and diplomatic communities, we feel an enormous amount of goodwill toward us anyway. Really." But some diplomatic sources, paint a much more nuanced picture of the relationship, a relationship which - even with all the nuance - is still considered very strong. According to these sources, while the Mumbai attack may lead to more understanding among the public of what Israelis face, it is not likely to have a lasting impact on the Congress Party-led government. "Governments have a different set of thinking than the man in the street," one official said. "They have to think of constraint and restraints and what is happening in relations with other countries and oil needs and imports and the like." The current Indian government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is not anti-Israel by any stretch of the imagination. How could a government be anti-Israel and engage in more than $3.5 billion of trade with it annually, excluding defense purchases? The answer is that the government is not as positively disposed to Israel as are the people, the officials said. Indeed, they describe a situation that is the reverse of the situation in Europe, where certain governments - such as Britain, Germany, Holland, France and Italy - are pro-Israel, while the people don't generally hold the same sentiments. "The Indian government is not an anti-Israel government by any means," one official said. "But it takes into consideration other constraints. Therefore I do expect a close relationship to continue, but I don't think this attack will have much of an impact." AND WHAT are the constraints he was referring to? The first, of course, is the massive Muslim population. While this is considered to be a moderate, Sufi-influenced, forward-looking Islamic community, without the rabidly knee-jerk anti-Israel sentiments of other Islamic communities elsewhere, the perception by the Indian government, according to these officials, is that the Muslim community is not in favor of the relationship with Israel. Whether this perception is accurate is largely beside the point, one official remarked. What is important is that it is the prevailing perception. Secondly, India - obviously - has a huge problem with Pakistan. As such, it has always felt the need to somehow stop the gravitation of the Arab world to what it views as its natural ally - Pakistan. One way it did this in the past, during India's non-aligned heyday of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, was to take a stridently anti-Israel stand and try, as it were, to be "more Catholic than the Pope." Although that inclination pretty much gave way, with the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, the officials said a strain of this still lingers in the present Indian government. Both concern for the viewpoints of the Indian Muslim population, and trying to keep the Arabs away from siding completely with Pakistan in the Indian-Pakistan conflict, are seen in Jerusalem as among the reasons why New Delhi - even now - continues to consistently vote against Israel in international forums. It's a relatively "cheap" way to wink at the Arab world and the country's own Muslims, while being able to continue to maintain a strong relationship with Israel. Israel is not going to make a big deal out of a bad voting record in the UN. "India is country of a billion people with its own constraints, its own terrorism, its own problems with the Islamic world," one official said. "The most important thing is energy. India is getting its oil from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria - countries of that nature. It cannot under any circumstances put that in danger." As a result, India has made a conscious decision to divorce two issues as much as it can: bilateral relations with Israel, and its approach to the Middle East - what it calls West Asia. ON THE bilateral level, ties are blooming. Although, to a certain extent, relations under the Congress Party, which regained power in 2004, are not as high-profile as they were when the Hindu nationalist, right-leaning BJP ruled from 1998-2004, the scope of the ties has increased enormously. For instance, annual trade has gone up from some $200 million, when full diplomatic ties were established in 1992, to $1.6 billion in 2003, when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India, to $3.5 billion this year. And, again, that excludes the military component, believed to add another $1.5 billion to the mix. In addition, Israelis have an estimated $4b.-$6b. invested in India, and India also has huge investments here. Last year, for example, the Indian Jain Irrigation Systems company, one of the world's largest irrigation companies, bought a majority share in NaanDan Irrigation Systems of Kibbutz Na'an in the Jordan Valley. And it is not only in the economic sphere that ties are strong. Political ties are also tight, with more ministerial visits to Israel under the Congress Party than when the BJP was in power, albeit at a lower level. A real-time indication of the nature of political ties is that when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak all phoned their counterparts after the Mumbai attacks, their calls were taken immediately - something that should not be seen as a given. According to Israeli diplomatic officials, the Indian position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be described as "balanced-minus," similar to that of the Russians. But while if, in the realm of bilateral relations, the Indians feel the sky is the limit, on the diplomatic process they have stepped back and have not sent their foreign minister to Israel or the Palestinian Authority since 2002, a situation Israel can live with comfortably. The main source of unhappiness with New Delhi in Jerusalem at this point is India's ties with Iran. Although it goes along with sanctions against Iran, India has been noticeably unenthusiastic about them, never at the forefront, never pushing them, always just "going along." The reason is oil - but not only. Geographically close to Iran, India has a relationship with it that goes back centuries, and which the Indians say cannot be "rubbed out" just like that. But it is still primarily about oil. "India has a problem in that its buys its oil from too few countries," one official said. "It has a major problem and needs oil. What will it do without energy? How will it feed a billion people?" Some analysts have said that another reason for India not to antagonize the Iranians is that the Iranians are keeping a lid on the Shi'ite Muslims in India, a community that makes up only about 10 percent of India's Muslim population, but still numbers some 15 million, and could - if it desired - create more than just a little mischief. Israel is not happy with India's views on Iran, and has relayed that in private meetings. But in the overall cost-benefit analysis, Jerusalem is very pleased with a relationship that arguably rates on a strategic par with its relationship with Turkey as the country's most important beyond that with the US.