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Reach out to Israel
13 Dec 2007, 0016 hrs IST,Ramesh Thakur
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India is the world's most populous and Israel the Middle East's only democracy. Judaism and Hinduism are among the world's ancient civilisations and "root faiths" that have sprouted other major religions. Their rituals are sometimes similar, which is why Indian hosts don't bat an eyelid when Jewish guests request particular items on the menu not be cooked in particular pots or served with particular dishes. The distinctive Jewish humour resonates well in India. India's tradition of hospitality towards the Jewish people is centuries old.

India's relationship with Israel, which gained independence within a year of India's in a similarly traumatic partition, was a major anomaly. One of the earliest to recognise Israel, India was one of the last to establish ambassadorial relations in 1992. Full relations were maintained with China and Pakistan, countries with which India has fought wars; but not with Israel, with whom we have no direct quarrel. The policy of stand-offishness provoked resentment and cynicism about India's moral authority without materially assisting the Palestinian cause or winning Arab votes against Pakistan in international forums.

The non-policy on Israel sometimes degenerated into petty petulance. In 1993, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform in Bombay and New Delhi. India, describing Jerusalem as a disputed city, insisted that the orchestra drop "Jerusalem" from its name; the orchestra dropped the India visit instead.

At other times it produced odd strategic choices. Having taken out Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, in the early 1980s apparently Israel thrice proposed to India that they should jointly attack and destroy Pakistan's nuclear plant at Kahuta. The Israeli air force was confident of achieving the pinpoint accuracy needed to destroy the facility, but needed refuelling facilities in western India because of the distances involved. India thrice refused: enmity should be made of sterner stuff.

How things have changed. India and Israel discovered common concerns in the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Central and South West Asia. By the 1990s they were united in the trauma of terrorism as an everyday reality. High-level and well-publicised delegations exchange visits all the time, security cooperation seems to be deepening and broadening, bilateral trade is thriving, Israel is India's second-biggest military supplier and India could become Israel's best military market. Young Israelis have fallen under the spell of the romance of India.

Most recently, rather than taking issue with the Israeli lobby in the US, the Indian-American community has tried to model itself on it in order to replicate "the lobby's" success. The exceptional access and influence of Israelis might be best explained by nothing more nefarious than organisational efficiency, motivation and public diplomacy skills.

In the Middle East, Israel is a small, isolated, vulnerable and threatened nation that has succeeded in establishing itself against the physical, demographic and military odds. In the US, the Jews represent a small minority that has risen above decades of prejudice to lead fulfilling lives and build political clout.

Respect and admiration for Israeli achievements among the 2.5 million strong Indian-Americans is now being followed by efforts to replicate influence in the American political process. Last year this took the form of successfully lobbying Congress to pass the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal. The latest episode in the story of the rise of the Indian-American community as a political force in US politics was the election of Bobby Jindal as the governor of Louisiana.

Politically aware and active, Indo-Americans are building community centres to celebrate their culture while trying to eschew divisive politics and religion, networking to combat prejudice, and building inroads into local, state and national politics to link their former motherland to their new homeland. It's called the American way.

Who knows, maybe Indians and Israelis in the US could in turn help to take the India-Israel relationship to a qualitatively new level as well.

(The writer is professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Canada.)
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