Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s landmark visit to India

This article was originally published in the Sunday Guardian, India


On January 14th, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in India, for a four-day state visit that will take him to Delhi, Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state and Mumbai. At the airport Modi gave him a royal welcome. No living Israel leader has done more to forge a solid base of friendship between the two countries. Netanyahu’s is the second official visit of an Israeli Prime Minister to India since Israel’s creation (1948). The first one was Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s in 2003, invited by BJP’s Prime Minister Vajpayee. However, the Congress Party returned to power a year later. It held Israel at arm’s length politically because of its concerns about Muslim reactions, but kept improving military and economic relations with the Jewish state.

A new period in the relations between the two countries began on May 16, 2014 when the BJP’s Narendra Modi was swept into power. Modi was known as a friend of Israel before the elections. He changed India’s public stance toward Israel from one of critical reserve to open political links, demonstrated by regular talks with Netanyahu, mutual state visits by the Presidents of the two countries and finally by his own historic visit to Israel in July 2017. Modi stopped India’s automatic support for every anti-Israeli resolution at the United Nations: some India has supported, others not. Modi’s policy change did not seem to be a temporary, easily reversible blip but rather a reflection of deeper, socio-economic trends: the rise of a more Western-oriented young middle class, but also a nationalist Hindu resurgence.

Modi remains very popular and is likely to stay in his position for quite some time. Before he came to power, it was assumed that a politician who was openly friendly to Israel could not be India’s leader because he would lose the Muslim vote at home and the cooperation of the Muslim world abroad. There were both internal and external Muslim constraints on India’s policies. Modi’s victory has eroded these constraints and broken an old taboo of Indian politics. His election triggered neither Muslim violence at home nor open hostility in the Muslim world. In fact, the erosion had begun long before. As India was slowly rising over the last decades, its unity became stronger and more visible. The great majority of India’s Muslims are moderate and want to be Indian.

At the same time, the balance of power between Middle Eastern oil producers and consumers is changing. Oil is no longer the political weapon it once was. A major technological revolution, fracking, has turned energy dependence on its head. The United States has moved towards energy independence, Europe gets most of its energy from Russia, and the Middle Eastern oil exporters have nowhere else to go other than Asia, with India their second largest market after China. Oil is no longer a compelling reason for India to support Arab-Muslim hostility against Israel and to allow a perception that it is in the Arab pocket no matter what. And it turned out that the Gulf oil producers and other Arab countries did not held “ their relations with New Delhi hostage to Indo-Israeli ties”, to quote India’s Middle East expert Prof. P.R. Kumaraswamy. India is too important for them.

But a few days ago, two events seemed to call into question Modi’s policy change. One was an announcement two weeks before Netanyahu’s visit that India would cancel a 500 Million U.S. Dollar anti-tank missiles deal with Israel’s defense company Rafael. This surprised the Israeli public. But a few days later, on 11th January, India seemed to indicate that the deal could finally go ahead. Thus, Israel will learn that decisions of this huge and complicated country are sometimes difficult to read. The second event was India’s position regarding the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The first, spontaneous Indian reaction differed from that of most other countries: ”India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not shaped by any third country.” A masterpiece of diplomatic obfuscation that mentioned neither the United States nor Jerusalem. It frustrated the Arabs but fomented almost no violence in India. When the United Nations General Assembly met to discuss a proposal to condemn the U.S. decision, many expected that India would abstain or not participate in the vote at all, but India voted with the condemning majority.

Passing events must not obscure long-term trends. The cancellation of the missile deal – and now the possible annulment of this cancellation – and India’s vote in the United Nations are not linked. In any event, Israeli experts had warned long before that their country’s arms sales to India would run into growing competition. And India’s vote was arguably not simply the result of its alleged fear about Indian workers and energy interests in the Arab Gulf, as some Indians have suggested. Many motives were in play. Generally India does not want to stand closer to Israel than the big European countries that vote against Israel while always proclaiming that they are Israel’s “best friends”. Clearly Modi left no doubt in his welcoming address that his warm feelings for the Jewish state have not changed. But India moves slowly, while Israel wants to move fast. Patience is not an Israeli virtue.

All this was probably already on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s mind when his plane touched down. He has often emphasized how much Israeli technologies can contribute to India. Surely the public will hear more about this during and after his visit. But Netanyahu is also an avid reader and history buff. Contacts between India’s civilization and that of ancient Israel go back three thousand years. The Hebrew Bible uses Sanskrit words for the spices that were imported from India for the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem – destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. While renewing links between ancient civilizations is a laudable goal, the immediate purpose of this visit is practical. Netanyahu brought a large number of business people to India, for good reason. Israel’s annual civilian trade with India, less than 5 billion US Dollars, is too modest and not what it should be. Israel’s trade with Turkey reaches the same number, although Turkey is no friend of Israel and its population is twenty times smaller than India’s. More intriguing is the Prime Minister’s planned meeting with major Bollywood actors and managers. It is the first meeting of this kind. Finally, an Israeli leader understands that the long-term friendship between the two countries must not depend overwhelmingly on defense links. It is inexcusable that cultural relations have lagged behind so long.

We are all waiting for the first great Bollywood movie screened in Israel, with all its singing and dancing, a pure love story prevailing over vile gangsters that are fleeing in race cars but are finally caught, and all this against Israel’s beautiful scenery!