The many twists and turns in Sri Lanka-Israel relations
Posted on December 26th, 2023

By P.K.Balachandran Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Colombo, December 26 (Daily Mirror): Sri Lanka’s relationship with Israel has been unique. In the past 75 years as an independent nation, Sri Lanka has recognized, derecognized and again recognised Israel, guided by ever-changing ideological, geopolitical and domestic factors.  

But in contrast to Sri Lanka, Israel has been consistent: It has always wanted good relations with Sri Lanka and has helped Sri Lanka whenever its help was sought, irrespective of the official status of the relationship.

Interestingly, war has been one of the determining factors in the relationship. War has brought Sri Lanka and Israel closer, despite the existence of ideological and political factors militating against it.

Although part of the Western alliance, Israel defied the Western nations’ informal ban on arms sales to Sri Lanka during its war with the Tamil militants from the 1980s to 2009 and supplied it with military aircraft and vessels. Without Israeli weaponry the Sri Lankan armed forces could not have defeated the formidable Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

And now, because of the Gaza war, Israel has sought and got Sri Lankan agricultural and construction workers to fill positions vacated by the Palestinian Arabs and other foreign nationalities. While many Arabs fled, Israel itself deported 82,000 Palestinian workers doubting their loyalty.

The Sunday Observer reported that Israel turned to Sri Lanka (and  also India) to urgently fill around 30,000 vacancies in its construction industry. The Israel Builders’ Association (IBA) said that its representatives would be in India and Sri Lanka within days to screen applicants for various roles such as plastering, ceramic tiling, building work and iron bending. The US$ 71 billion Israeli building industry is currently operating at just 15% of its pre-war capacity. The Israeli construction industry needs an estimated 100,000 workers to return to its pre-war capacity.

Sri Lankan workers will be going to work in the agricultural sector also. In November, Sri Lanka had agreed to immediately send 10,000 farm workers. Some 100 of them have already arrived in Israel. Currently, about 8,000 Sri Lankans are working in Israel, mostly as caregivers. Two Sri Lankan caregivers perished in the brutal Hamas attacks, the Times of Israel reported.

All this is happening even when Israel has no embassy in Colombo. While Sri Lanka has a regular embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel operates from its embassy in New Delhi. 

Just as Israel desperately needs Sri Lankan and other foreign workers, Sri Lanka badly needs foreign remittances as the foreign exchange draught continues despite the recent inflow of US$ 4 billion. Sri Lanka is still burdened with a total foreign debt of US$ 52 billion on which it defaulted in April 2022.

Because of the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis, local unemployment has increased. Youth unemployment is particularly worrying as it stands at 28%. Lankan youth from the poorer classes as well-educated professionals are leaving the country in droves. The government itself has encouraged its employees to go out of the country for employment by giving them leave of absence without pay.

Today, Sri Lanka-Israel relations are cordial, despite the Gaza crisis in which Sri Lanka has sided with the Global South and has voted with the latter in the United Nations.

But relationship has seen great ups and downs in the past. According to Sri Lankan scholar in international affairs, Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe, the Jews’ relationship with Sri Lanka has a long history that dates back to the biblical epoch. Galle is said to be the city of Tarshish, to which King Solomon sent merchant ships.

Amarasinghe further says that the Jewish presence in the island nation thrived under British rule with many European Jews holding  prominent positions in the colonial administration in the island that was known as Ceylon till 1972.  

After its independence in 1948, Ceylon established relations with Israel unlike most of the neighbours in South Asia, which were markedly pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. Under Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake, Ceylon began buying weapons from Israel, including the naval vessel HMCyS Gajabahu. On the economic front, Israel assisted in the digging of tube wells in the dry zone of northern Sri Lanka.

But when the leftist S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister and was followed by the even more leftist Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Ceylon (which became Sri Lanka in May 1972) became hostile to Israel, preferring to establish ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) instead. Sirimavo Bandaranaike closed down the Israeli embassy in Colombo.  

But Colombo’s attitude to the pro-Western Jewish State changed radically with the coming into power of the pro-West J.R.Jayewardene in 1976. His Minister of Internal Security, Lalith Athulathmudali (who had been a law lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem), and Ravi Jayewardene, founder of the Special Task Force, believed that Sri Lanka should turn to Israel to combat the Sri Lankan Tamil militants. President J.R.Jayewardene allowed an Israeli mission (not an embassy though) opened in Colombo in 1984.

Minister Gamini Dissanayake got Israeli advice to accelerate the Mahaweli development project to settle Sinhalese farmers in the island’s dry zones.

Punsara Amarasinghe quotes Victor Ostrovky and Claire Hoy the authors of By Way of Deception: A Devastating Insider’s Portrait of the Mossad to show how the Sri Lankan government was aided by the Mossad in the early 1980s.

The book reveals that it was a Mossad operative, Amy Yar, who advised Jayewardene’s government to accelerate the country’s ambitious Mahaweli development project as a quick remedy for the energy crisis and, more importantly, as the best strategy to settle Sinhalese farmers in the island’s dry zones.”

Two Israeli academics provided a broad analysis of the project that crucially helped the Sri Lankan government convince the World Bank to invest $250 million. A large portion of the Mahaweli contract was given to Israeli construction company Solel Bonah and Israeli architect Ulrik Plesner, who planned six new towns for the Mahaweli settlements.” Amarasinghe says.

However, the revived Israeli presence in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s and the opening of the Israeli embassy in Colombo in 1984 alarmed the country’s Muslim ethnic minority which was also politically influential. In 1987 India too wanted the Israeli interest section to be closed because at that time, New Delhi was both anti-Israel and anti-US.

In 1992, Sri Lanka-Israel ties were suspended by President R.  Premadasa, who is believed to have told the American Ambassador that Sri Lanka had no Jews but it had a politically significant Muslim minority which he could not alienate.  

Come 2000, ties with Israel were restored, though without an embassy in Colombo. Israel became a key source of weapons and training for the Sri Lanka Armed Forces during the intensified war against the LTTE. Israel sold IAI Kfir fighter jets, Super Dvora Mk III-class patrol boats, Saar 4 class missile boats and Gabriel missiles, according to Amarasinghe.

In 2017, the governments of Israel and Sri Lanka signed an agreement to bring foreign nursing aides to Israel. Sri Lankan nurses have acquitted themselves creditably in Israel and so more are likely to be recruited. In February 2020, Israel offered Sri Lanka technology in agriculture, education, transportation and IT sectors, which was openly welcomed by Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In September 2021, the Sri Lankan government signed an agreement with Israel to upgrade Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

And importantly, opposition from the Sri Lankan Muslim community to any dealings with Israel had disappeared upon the advent of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lankan politics in 2005. Relations with Israel are clearly improving even though Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry is a Muslim. If Israel does become a major employer of Sri Lankans, (the number currently envisaged is 100,000), the establishment of an Israeli embassy in Colombo cannot be ruled out.  

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