The Potential of Israel's Relationship With India

With a genuine peace process, India will bring its relationship with Israel out of the closet.

A calamity in New Delhi and Jerusalem: An Israeli actress claims in a new book that the heads of the Indian film industry requested sexual favors from her in return for a role in their films. Based on the scope of the revelation of the story here last week, one could have thought that something major had happened in Bollywood, that Indian-Israeli relations had turned upside down, and that nothing can save them from the serious crisis they are experiencing.

In January, the two countries will mark 20 years since they established relations. Truth be told, what do we even know about the status of these relations?

It was reported last week that Israel spread a red carpet for the foreign minister of San Marino. She deserves it. She represents a country of 32,000 inhabitants; Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau also deserve it. All of them together populate no more than an average neighborhood in New Delhi or Mumbai, but they are well-known lovers of Zion, and during hard times, in light of the battle with the Palestinian at the United Nations, their support requires constant nurturing.

And India? It's a lost cause, say political sources. It's in the Palestinians' pocket, and will remain there even if we stand on our heads.

When Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India in 2003, his visit assumed a historical halo. Everyone spoke at the time about the identical values and challenges of "the only two democracies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of China that are dealing with dictatorships that sponsor terror." There was also talk about forming a strategic Indian-American-Israeli troika. "The axis of virtue," they called it.

The Arab countries reacted with annoyance. There was a feeling that there had been a revolution in Indian foreign policy. "The visit will lead to an entirely new level of cooperation," predicted then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the time in an interview with Haaretz.

A lot of water has flowed in the Ganges since then. The Congress Party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ousted the Hindu nationalists (BJP ) from government in 2004. Sharon was the last Israeli prime minister to visit Delhi. India, for its part, has never sent its heads of state or government here. The strategic troika was tossed into the trash can. At every critical diplomatic moment, India began once again to oppose Israel. Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that "India is steadfast in its support for the Palestinian people's struggle for a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital."

Israel didn't bat an eyelash. It transferred its lobbying to more important realms - Gabon, for example, or Bosnia. After all, the Congress Party cannot overcome its old socialist instinct from the period of the bloc of non-aligned nations; it must support the downtrodden Palestinians. It owes it to its electorate, and to the 200 million Muslims who are part of it. It needs the energy sources of Iran and Arab countries. It also needs them in light of its ongoing battle with Pakistan in Kashmir.

But having said all that, this presentation distorts a fascinating anomalous reality. Behind the diplomatic abyss lie an extremely warm and close bilateral relations. Mutual trade, which totaled less than $200 million in 1992, reached $5 billion (! ) this year. Every year, some 40,000 Israelis travel in India or do business there. Cooperation in the fields of agriculture, science, culture, pharmaceuticals and high-tech is constantly increasing, as are security and intelligence relations: Israel is currently the second-largest supplier, after Russia, of sophisticated weapons systems to India.

Indian commentators speak of an unusual relationship, which doesn't exist with any other country in the world. But everything is done behind the scenes. The Indians are drying up their diplomatic relations and hiding the strategic ones, which are steadily becoming closer. They don't want visibility - not now. Bring us a genuine peace process, they say, and see how quickly we take the relationship out of the closet.

Israel is probably in no hurry; that's a mistake - and not only because of the tremendous potential of the Indian giant that is becoming more powerful economically and politically: "Having a mistress" can be pleasant and useful, but history proves that when it comes to countries, too, it's much easier to brush aside such a relationship as opposed to a formal, open and boring one.