by Punsara Amarasinghe 11 February 2021
Since Indian premier, Narendra Singh Modi’s historic visit to Israel in 2017, India and Israel’s bilateral relations have been elevated into a strategic partnership with a deep sense of solidarity against Islamic terrorism. The academic discussions that emerged in contemporary international relations scholarship highlight Indo-Israel strategic partnership as a success story of how Israeli diplomacy won over a state, which questioned Israel’s recognition in the past. However, it is worthy to note that India’s tiny neighbour Sri Lanka had its strategic alliance with Israel before India developed it. It was often seen as Israeli’s success story in South Asia during the cold war era.
Jewish relations with Sri Lanka have a long history, which even dates back to the biblical epoch as the Sri Lankan city Galle is the biblical “Tarshish” to which Biblical figure king Solomon sent merchant ships. Besides the unproven biblical legacy in antiquity, the Jewish presence in the island nation saw considerable progress during the British rule. Many European Jews held prominent positions in the colonial administration. In the early stage of the British government, then Chief Justice of Sri Lankan Sir Alexander Johnston proposed establishing a Jewish settlement on the island. But, this was ignored by the colonial office in London. Both Israel and Sri Lanka became independent states in 1948.
At the inception of the newly born nation, Israel coped with the diplomatic resistance stemmed from the Arab world. Many post-colonial countries, including India, refused especially the recognition of Israel as an independent state. But, Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D.S Senanayake initiated the island nation’s cooperation with Israel, despite many Asian and African states had their discontent with recognizing Israel due to the Palestinian issue. During D.S Senanayake’s era, the Sri Lankan navy purchased its first gunship from Israel, named “Gajabahu 1”. Apart from that, Israeli technical advisors provided technical assistance to dig tube wells in northern Sri Lanka’s dry zone. But these budding efforts of creating Israel-Sri Lankan comity were reversed by the nationalist rhetoric of SWRD Bandaranaike, who came into power of Sri Lanka in 1956. Driven by his anti-western sentiments, Bandaranaike upheld his position more supportive of the Arab cause against Israel’s formation. SWRD Bandaranaike defended Egyptian president Abdul Gamal Nassar’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal as an inevitable move for Egypt’s sovereignty.
The Israeli-Sri Lankan relations further deteriorated during the administration of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayke, whose foreign policy was based on the non-aligned movement principles, and non-aligned representatives from Arab countries mainly expressed empathy for the Palestinian liberation cause by denouncing the state of Israel. As a stalwart of the Non-aligned movement, Mrs. Bandaranaike took more keen interest in forming relations with PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) regardless of PLO’s relations with Tamil separatist organizations in the early 1970s. In fact, several PLO representatives visited Sri Lanka to urge the government to terminate its diplomatic ties with Israel. In the backdrop of such flourishing relations between Sri Lanka and PLO, the Israeli ambassador in Colombo, Yitzhak Navon, condemned Sri Lanka’s hobnobbing with Arab terrorist organizations plotting to exterminate the existence of the state of Israel. Within two months after Navon’s statement, Bandaranaike severed diplomatic ties with Israel, arguing that Israel had violated UN security council resolution 242. The Arab leaders highly praised Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s decision as a bold act made in favour of the Palestinian’s liberation cause. The was a perfect illustration showing how PLO delegitimized Israel’s image outside the Middle East.
Much more closer ties between Israel and Sri Lanka were restored after 1977 under Sri Lanka’s first executive president Junius Richard Jayewardene when the island nation began to suffer from LTTE terrorism. Cabinet minister Lalith Athulathmudali, who previously worked as a lecturer in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Jayewardene’s son Ravi Jayewardene were determined that Sri Lanka should seek technical assistance from Israel to combat LTTE. In fact, Jayewardene desperately turned to Israel after the West denied his requests regarding purchasing weapons. Security ties soon led to the establishment of diplomatic relations, and in April 1984, an Israeli mission was opened in Colombo for the second time. The vivid account is given by Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy in their bestselling work “By Way of Deception: A Devastating Insider’s Portrait of the Mossad” indicates how Mossad aided the Sri Lanka government in the early ’80s. According to Ostrovsky, it was a Mossad operative (katsa) named Amy Yar who advised JR Jayewardene’s government to accelerate the country’s most ambitious development Mahaweli project as a quick remedy for the energy crisis and, more importantly, as the most suitable strategy of settling Sinhalese farmers in the dry zones of the island. Under Mossad’s guidance, two Israeli academics provided a broad analysis of this project’s worth, which crucially helped the Sri Lankan government convince the World Bank for its 250 million $ investment. Furthermore, a large amount of Mahaweli project contract was given to a major Israeli company Solel Bonah and eminent Israeli architect Ulrik Plesner planned six new towns for the Mahaweli settlements. The new swing of Israeli presence in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s and the opening of the Israeli embassy in Colombo in 1984 caused paranoia among the Muslim ethnic minority in Sri Lanka on a new Jewish conspiracy theory. The antipathy that arose from the Muslim organization sympathizing with PLO in Sri Lanka was often filled with slogans portraying Israel as a state that ruthlessly perpetrates violence.
President Jayewardene’s successor Ranasinghe Premadasa took a completely different approach toward Israel with his pro-Arab stances. He confounded the West by voting against the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/86 in 1991 that was adopted to revoke Resolution 3379, which had called Zionism a form of racism. Premadasa’s decision to vote against the resolution brought no particular fame to a small island nation like Sri Lanka; even as a traditional pro-soviet state during the cold war, India sided with the USA in the general assembly. Premadasa made its final blow against the Israeli presence in Sri Lanka by terminating the diplomatic ties in 1992. The whole process of delegitimizing Israel and thwarting Israel-Sri Lanka relations was rooted in the astute manipulation led by PLO and the supporters in the local Muslim community in Sri Lanka, which undermined every strengthening diplomatic effort between the two nations.
(Punsara Amarasinghe is a former visiting researcher at Global Legal Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison and is currently reading for Ph.D. in law at Institutetute of law, politics, and development Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He holds LL.M in international law from South Asian University, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )