A 1991 Meeting with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao

, October 31, 2007

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)

 

A meeting between an international Jewish leader, an Australian diplomat, and the then Indian prime minister set the stage for major progress in Indian-Israeli relations. Matters discussed included the improved international climate regarding Israel, India‘s position on the United Nations’ “Zionism is racism” resolution, India‘s diplomatic constraints, and the possibility of convening an Indo-Jewish colloquium.

 

The Israeli Foreign Ministry considered the author’s meeting with Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao an important turning point toward upgrading Indian-Israeli diplomatic relations to ambassadorial levels.[i] This process culminated on 24 December 1992-precisely two months subsequently.

Also present at the meeting were the Australian High Commissioner to India, David Evans, and a private secretary and assistant to Prime Minister Rao.

I opened by congratulating Rao on his recent election victory, outlined the role of the World Jewish Congress as a Jewish “parliament” covering all fifteen million Jews around the world, and explained the purpose of my present visit to India. The main part of the transcript of the meeting is offered below.

A Propitious Climate

Leibler: Please bear with me if I speak to you openly and frankly, not as a diplomat, but I feel that this is an opportunity to review a bad, and a sad, relationship with the Jews and with Israel-which, I believe, has been treated by India as a pariah.

I know that there are complex reasons for this, but my purpose in speaking to you now is to ascertain whether it is not now an opportune moment to open a new and more positive phase in Indo-Jewish relations.

This is particularly important at the present time because Jewish communities-especially in the United States, as Congressman Solarz[ii] may have indicated to you or your colleagues-are extremely agitated about the current state of affairs.

I am not suggesting that India change its policy vis-à-vis the Arabs, or that it ally itself with Israel and support all Israeli policies. All I am proposing is that India treat Israel as it would any other state, by upgrading its diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors in the normal manner. You have relations at ambassadorial level with Pakistan, a country you have been at war with-why not Israel?

Now is the right time for such a move. The Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union has restored full diplomatic relations with Israel. Even China is rapidly moving toward a normalization of its relations with Israel-I was in Beijing just last month, and was amazed by the sea change that has taken place there, with the Chinese foreign minister making it plain to me that China has substantially shifted its position on the “Zionism=racism” resolution in the United Nations and that bilaterals are in a process of rapid improvement.

Moreover, an encouraging start has been made in Madrid toward peace in the Middle East, and any country that wishes to be a player in this important development must have normal relations with all sides. If India fails to develop a real bilateral relationship with Israel, her influence in the Middle East will be zero and her Arab allies will simply take her for granted.

India’s present orientation would not only result in a loss of influence in the Middle East, but by bracketing itself with countries like Libya and Iraq this great country is in danger of losing the support of liberal and other influential groups affecting public opinion in the United States and elsewhere.

I repeat: I am not suggesting that you forge an alliance with Israel, but simply that you recognize the Jewish constituency as a potential ally. We do not regard your predecessors as enemies-but we do regard you as a friend. And now is the time for a decisive move, of the kind you have demonstrated vis-à-vis South Africa.

A major litmus test would be your position on the “Zionism=racism” resolution. This is an abomination for the Jewish people, to malign as “racist” a national movement that has returned to their ancestral homeland hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world-including tens of thousands from places like India and Ethiopia. We Jews are absolutely passionate about this. I hope that you, like the Chinese, can acknowledge that the formulation of that resolution is wrong, and that you will align yourself with those countries supporting its recision, when the issue comes to a vote in the UN. Abstention is not good enough.

Rao: Let me make it clear, we are not trying to please anyone. We have many friends. I appreciate that you have spoken not as a diplomat, and I will do the same.

As for our attitude, there has been a gradual, slow but definite change. Perhaps that change…we would like that change to be better perceived, but we do not want to do anything that will prevent us from taking subsequent steps. There are many constraining factors we have to overcome, and we are gradually overcoming these.

Let us do things in our own way. We have mentally prepared ourselves to make changes. But we are grappling with our immediate problems. We are doing first things first, but my own mind is clear. We are working on it.

Okay, we have supported the “Zionism=racism” resolution in the UN, but I do not remember India ever making a statement that Zionism equals racism. We sometimes have to go along with things that we may not be 100 percent in agreement with.

Leibler:  But we have been hearing for the past ten years that “things are changing.” I need to come up with something tangible for my constituency.

India’s Constraints

Rao: You can certainly tell them that things have been improving. But I agree, not visibly improving. We will accelerate this process. If we have said that Zionism equals racism, we will have to review this in the proper manner. There is a change in our approach to this question.

Leibler: I realize you are not like the late Mrs. Gandhi, who was much more passionate, less open-minded….

Rao: I have some knowledge of her views. With no fear of contradiction, this is one matter that has been getting our attention ever since the government came in.

Evans: If the “Zionism=racism” resolution comes up in the United Nations, I am instructed to tell you that my government would support and cosponsor any move to have it overturned.

Rao: It is not only Israel, but also South Africa. Concerning South Africa, we have gone a long way toward overcoming some of the constraints we had. And it has not been easy, let me tell you. The cricket fans may have liked it, but by no means everyone. Nevertheless, we have shown that where there is an opening or an opportunity for change, we have taken it up. Please note-we have been grappling with the question of these two countries (Israel and South Africa) ever since my government came in. And we will seize the opportunity to make visible [feasible?] changes as soon as possible.

Leibler: I accept what you are saying at face value, but I need to convince my constituency that there is some movement. You may know that we have reached agreement with the Chinese to hold a major Sino-Jewish scholarly colloquium in Beijing next April. Would you consider such a colloquium here in India?

Rao: We would certainly consider it. Please let us have the details….

Leibler: Then there is the economic boycott still in force against Israel. This is simply not moral.

Rao: This comes in the wake of something else. Things will change, and there will be real changes-not just cosmetic.

Leibler. I must emphasize that if you move in this direction it will not be just morally right, but will have many tangible benefits for India.

Rao: I know what you are saying. We are not meeting under any misconception.

Leibler: Can I say there will be a change, let’s say, in the next six months?

Rao: No. But I can tell you the direction is right. The time is right, looking positively.

Leibler: Can I say there will be a “sea change”?

Rao: A change is a change from my point of view. This colloquium you mentioned is quite a good idea. It has a certain visibility [feasibility?] and plus points. Please let me have the details. Write to me directly concerning this.

The Wrap-up of the Meeting

As the meeting ended after some thirty-five minutes, I gave Rao a copy of the report of our October 1991 visit to China, which included a description of the proposed colloquium in Beijing. I promised to submit a detailed proposal for a similar colloquium in India.

One of Rao’s assistants asked High Commissioner Evans not to release Rao’s statements to the press. I informed Evans that I would proceed with all due caution and would not quote Rao directly. But I pointed out that it was an official meeting and that Rao himself had specifically addressed some of his remarks to my Jewish constituency.

*     *     *

Notes

 

[i]. See Moshe Yegar, The Long Journey to Asia: A Chapter in Israel’s Diplomatic History (Haifa: University of Haifa, 2004), 169. [Hebrew]

[ii]. Congressman Stephen Solarz served as chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs. He was one of the most influential Americans on the Asian scene and together with the Australian Foreign Ministry enabled the author to meet Asian heads of state and foreign ministers on matters pertaining to Israel and the Jewish people

*     *     *

ISI LEIBLER, a vereran international Jewish leader, headed the Australian Jewish community for many years. He also served in various senior capacities with the World Jewish Congress, including chairman of the Governing Board. Leibler’s main international involvement was first Asian-Jewish Colloquium including a historic encounter in Beijing between international Jewish and Chinese scholars preceding diplomatic relations with Israel. He now lives in Israel and heads the JCPA’s Israel-Diaspora Commission.

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler now resident in Jerusalem is a veteran Jewish leader, He was a former head of the Australian Jewish community, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress Governing Board and global leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. He is a widely read political commentator and his columns appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.