The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Sri Lanka has had a complex relationship with Israel for over 70 years.

Sri Lanka and Israel both emerged as nation-states in 1948, marking the beginning of a relationship that would prove delicate from the outset. D.S. Senanayake, the founding father of Sri Lanka and its first prime minister, was among the first world leaders to officially recognize the independent status of the State of Israel. However, subsequent political developments in Sri Lanka would strain the budding Israeli-Sri Lankan relations.

In particular, former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s alignment with the Arab world as a champion of non-alignment further eroded ties with Israel. Non-alignment was enthusiastically embraced by anti-colonialists and Marxists, with a special focus on national liberation movements, prominently including the Palestinian cause. In May 1970, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) severed diplomatic relations with Israel under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s direction, citing Israel’s violation of UN Security Council Resolution 242. This move was seen as a welcoming gesture to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Amidst this diplomatic turmoil, Israeli envoy Yitzhak Navon in Colombo stirred controversy by stating, “There is no doubt that the government of Ceylon would not look kindly upon Israel encouraging a visit of the Tamil Tigers of Eelam, whose aim is to wage war against the Ceylonese government. Similarly, we do not look kindly upon members of terrorist organizations being allowed to enter and organize in Ceylon, supported by Muslims, when they continuously proclaim their goal of annihilating the State of Israel.”

Israel’s unwavering commitment to national defense was not reciprocated by Bandaranaike’s government. On the contrary, she welcomed a delegation of PLO leaders in 1975 and allowed the opening of the Palestinian embassy in Colombo. Unbeknownst to the Sri Lankan government, the PLO was secretly extending military support by training Tamil separatist youth since the mid-1970s. Eelam Revolutionary Organisers, a Tamil militant group, forged ties with the PLO delegate in the UK, promising military training from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. The PLO also played a diplomatic game with Bandaranaike’s government by initiating the Palestine Solidarity Movement in Sri Lanka under the leadership of a young Sri Lankan Parliamentarian named Mahinda Rajapaksa.

When Bandaranaike realized PLO’s duplicitous intentions, she wrote a letter to Arafat, requesting an end to military support for Tamil separatists. Arafat ignored the request, believing that training Tamil rebels fighting for a separate state would benefit the future Palestinian state.

In a twist of fate, Sri Lanka eventually turned to Israel for military and technical support in the 1980s to combat the Tamil separatist guerrilla movement. Israel’s assistance paved the way for the establishment of Israel’s bureau attached to the U.S. embassy in Colombo. Some analysts even allege that the 1984 terror attack by Tamil militants on a hotel in Colombo targeted an Israeli Mossad agent, who resided in the hotel.

The negotiations between President Junius Richard Jayewardene’s son Ravi Jayewardene and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir in 1985 were crucial, leading to Israel providing technical assistance in combating terrorism. The assistant director of the Asian division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry played a key role in these negotiations. Additionally, Gamini Dissanayake sought advice from Israelis to develop agricultural settlements in the North and East, mirroring Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

As Israel solidified its diplomatic presence in Colombo, it remained conspicuously silent on the Tamil community’s struggle for self-determination. In 1986, on the eve of establishing an Israeli section in Colombo, the Israeli representative stated, “It is not our aim at this stage to establish relations with the Tamils, except for those who recognize the government in Colombo. Our goal, which at this moment seems entirely achievable, is the renewal of diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka.”

Despite growing ties with Israel, Sri Lanka continued to play footsie with Palestinians fighting for a Palestinian state. Sri Lanka hosted Fatah in Colombo, recognized it as the representative of the Palestinian people, supported Palestinians in the UN, and built close ties with Palestinian officers. Sri Lankan political leaders often adjusted their approach to Israel based on the populist appeal to the local Muslim community. For instance, the Palestinian Solidarity Movement in Sri Lanka received consistent support from Mahinda Rajapaksa, who later used it as a political tool to secure the Muslim vote bank during the 2005 presidential elections. However, despite these political shifts, Sri Lanka continued to purchase weapons from Israel, even after receiving military support to combat the LTTE terrorism.

Sri Lanka’s relationship with Israel during the civil war was marked by complex diplomatic maneuvers and shifting alliances, reflecting the intricate dynamics of international politics in the region.

Punsara Amarasinghe holds a PhD in International Law from Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy. He also holds a Master of Laws from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed his undergraduate studies in law at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Previously, Punsara worked as a research assistant at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2018 for a project on Russian legal realism. He also held two visiting research fellowships at the University of Wisconsin Madison and at Paris's esteemed Sciences PO. For a brief period, he worked at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.