When Avigdor Lieberman gifted his then Indian counterpart SM Krishna a tennis racket signed by all the members of Israel’s Davis Cup squad after the latter became only the second Indian foreign minister to visit Tel Aviv in 2012, he was unwittingly reinforcing the relevance of the sport as a leitmotif of Israel – India relations. Just as the game of ping pong or table tennis altered the course of history by paving the way for a détente between the United States and China, the game of tennis can claim to have played a role in the rapprochement between India and Israel, which culminated in the establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1992.
Similar to the American table tennis player Glenn Cowan, a long-haired hippie who, as Nicholas Griffin writes in his 2014 book Ping-Pong Diplomacy, accidentally wandered onto the Chinese table tennis team’s bus at Nagoya, Japan, in 1971 and changed the world forever, Indian tennis legend Vijay Amritraj’s quest for the 1987 Davis Cup influenced the powers-that-be to allow the Israeli team to play in New Delhi. As it turned out, India beat Israel in the quarterfinal and Australia in the semifinal but lost to the eventual winner Sweden in the final.
Unlike former US president Richard Nixon, who landed in Beijing less than a year after ping-pong players scripted history, it took five years (and four prime ministers – Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and PV Narasimha Rao) after Amritraj’s intervention for India to normalise its ties with Israel. The change in mindset was prompted by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, which left India friendless; depleted foreign exchange reserves and the need for turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for overcoming the economic crisis played on the Indian mind, too. And, as if on cue, New Delhi, in its wisdom, concluded that what better way to win friends and influence people in Washington than to come out of the closet, as it were, and embrace Israel like never before.
It would take another two decades and more for Sushma Swaraj to let it be known that Narendra Modi intends to visit Israel in what will be the first ever visit to that country by an Indian prime minister. Addressing a (rare) press conference in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told media persons that she would soon visit Israel, Palestine and Jordan as a “package” trip. And then she let the media in on what was already by then the worst guarded secret in Lutyens’ Delhi and beyond: “As far as the prime minister’s visit is concerned, he will travel to Israel. No dates have been finalised. It will take place as per mutually convenient dates.” While the Ministry of External Affairs was quick to quell speculation that Modi could be travelling to Israel soon, possibly in the next few months, it did not deem it fit to clarify whether the prime minister would visit Palestine, too. And therein lies the fork in the road.
Lip service to the Palestinian cause
A recalibration of India’s West Asia policy under Prime Minister Modi was only to be expected after the BJP came to power with a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and without the baggage of coalition compulsions.
Modi went into the meeting with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu on the margins of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at New York in September last year after okaying the purchase of Barak- I air defence missiles worth nearly Rs 9 billion from Israel. That was the first high-level meeting between the two countries after Ariel Sharon’s 2013 visit to India, the only time India has played host to an Israeli premier. On the occasion, Netanyahu extended an invitation to Modi to visit Israel and iterated that “sky is the limit” for India-Israel bilateral ties. The Modi- Netanyahu meeting was followed by New Delhi’s decision to procure the Spike antitank guided missiles and launchers built by the Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd of Israel for Rs 32 billion.
A series of subsequent visits to and from India added a sense of urgency to the bilateral ties: Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Israel in November last year while Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon from Israel visited India in January and February this year, respectively. Incidentally, Ya’alon’s was the first ever visit to India by an Israeli defence minister. In between, Modi made the time to wish his Jewish friends a happy Hanukkah in Hebrew on his Twitter account.