The Pragmatism Behind Modi-Netanyahu Bonhomie

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Credit: PMO/Twitter
India-Israel diplomatic relations are driven by pragmatism, not clouded by sentimentality.

‘De-hyphenate!’ That’s the word being used to describe India’s nimble delinking of bilateral relations with Israel and with Palestine. And that potential victory of political pragmatism, if not gymnastics, will be on full display this week, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as part of a five-day tour of India.

Netanyahu’s visit is the sibling of Narendra Modi’s July 2017 visit to Israel (and their prior meeting at the UN General Assembly) during which Modi didn’t visit Palestine. The increasing closeness between the leaders, at least in front of the cameras, illustrates what many describe as a tectonic shift in diplomatic relations between India and Israel.

But the Palestinian issue hasn’t disappeared; Iran is still a stumbling block, and the two countries’ mutual interest in outsized weapons deals plays a critical role in relations. Not that you’d pick that up at all from the flowery language used by Modi and Netanyahu – and that’s deliberate and calculated, from both sides.

Modi’s visit to Israel, the first ever by a serving Indian Prime Minister, was hailed as a historic and ‘momentous’ celebration of India-Israel diplomatic relations. Headlines screamed: ‘Indian PM Set to Make Historic First Visit To Israel,’ ‘Israel rolls out red carpet for PM Modi’s historic visit.’ For Modi, as with his other trips abroad, it was an opportune moment to present himself as a leader of global significance, not least to a domestic audience.

What ensued was a public relations blitzkrieg. Social media networks and Indian Newspapers and Television Channels were fed with videos of Israelis welcoming Modi. Several craven media networks were awash with stories that reported the minutest trivia with great adoration – from what the Indian PM wore to what he ate; how he was received by the Israeli establishment to the hugfest that ensued between the two leaders.

‘Shalom,’ said Modi, ‘Namaste,’ said Netanyahu to cheering crowds and shuttering cameras.

All the necessary props – the stroll along Olga beach, dipping their bare feet in the Mediterranean; drive in the water de-salinization buggy; meeting with Moshe, the eleven-year-old boy who survived the terrorist attack in Mumbai, now living in Israel as is the nanny who rescued him; the lady who cooked Modi’s favorite meal and many others – were carefully used to showcase his visit as a diplomatic victory and a celebration of India-Israel ties.

Keen to build economic and strategic ties with India (the world’s fastest growing economy) and to signal a diplomatic victory against the Palestinians at home, Netanyahu went a step further. Addressing a gathering, Netanyahu accelerated this budding bromance by calling it a ‘marriage made in heaven.’ Earlier this year, Netanyahu had used the same comment to flatter the Chinese premier, Xi Jing Ping.

Modi and Netanyahu’s penchant for wordplay made the media rounds too. While Modi came up with ‘I4I’ (India for Israel and Israel for India), Netanyahu came up with ‘I4F’ (Israel India Innovation Initiative Fund), a $40 million fund for ‘research and development in innovation.’ Though it allocated only a paltry sum of $4 million a year, it made front-page news.

Reciprocating Modi’s visit in July, Netanyahu has landed in India this week on a five-day tour to further strengthen ties between India and Israel, accompanied by a contingent of businessmen and journalists.

Is there more to this than meets the eye?

Beneath the carefully curated PR glitz that accompanied Modi’s trip, there are pragmatic realities that drive the relations between the two countries.

Arms deals are a foreign policy goldmine. To start with, it is this goldmine – the sale of weapons – that brought India and Israel together. During India’s war with China in 1962, then Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion offered his support to Jawaharlal Nehru and supplied weapons to India. In July 1971, another Israeli PM, Golda Meir, secretly supplied weapons when India was preparing for war with Pakistan.

Since then, diplomatic relations between India and Israel have seen a dramatic progress. From voting at the UN against the creation of Israel in 1947, and ongoing reluctance to extend recognition in the early years of its independence, India has come a long way in acknowledging Israel and forming strategic partnerships.

The end of the cold war and collapse of the Soviet Union created new avenues for diplomatic engagement with India. In 1992, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao paved the way for a paradigm shift, with the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1999, during the Kargil war under Prime Ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Israel supplied India with laser-guided missiles, taking the relationship a step further.

The fact is India’s inability to build an efficient and robust indigenous defense manufacturing capability, partly due to its corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy, meant that India continued to be the world’s largest arms importer for nearly five years between 2012 and 2016.

A report by India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence suggests that almost 40 percent of India’s weapons are either obsolete or obsolescent. Given this, New Delhi has a desperate need to upgrade India’s weapons. This takes primacy, especially with the military modernization of India’s hostile neighbors – Pakistan and China.

This makes India a wonderfully lucrative market for Israel. Nearly half of Israel’s arms exports end up in India. Currently, Israel is the fourth largest supplier of arms to India after the U.S., Russia, and France. Israel is poised to become the largest supplier of arms to India. From Heron drones to Barak 8 air defense systems, India’s military shopping list has been ever increasing and Israel has been its preferred vendor. If the FICCI study (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) which predicts that the Government of India is likely to spend $620 billion in buying weapons between 2014 and 2022 turns out to be true, Israel, with a major chunk of the pie, would indeed strike gold.

With Modi and Netanyahu’s relations going way beyond ‘coming out of the closet,’ defense deals to the tune of $3 billion have been signed, and economic diplomacy is only likely to triumph. In short, there will be more deals and more sales.

However, beyond the public relations smokescreen and the drab rhetoric of shared history, bonhomie, awkward hugs and public display of affection, pragmatic realism comes to the forefront in political diplomacy.

Despite Modi’s visit to Israel in July, Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister of External Affairs reiterated to fellow leaders of the Non-Alignment Movement on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September that “for independent India, support for the Palestinian cause has been a reference point of its foreign policy.”

Despite the growing proximity to the United States and Netanyahu’s visit to India, in December, India pressed the ‘Yes’ button in the UN General Assembly, criticizing Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, affirming its unwavering support for the Palestinian cause, as it has for nearly seven decades.

Speaking on conditions of anonymity to the Hindustan Times, an Indian diplomat said:

The vote was consistent with our position on Palestine historically, across governments going back decades …to expect anything else – especially a no vote – would be a gross lack of awareness of India’s stand on the issue.

This is also reflected in India’s friendly relations with Palestine. New Delhi refers to Mahmoud Abbas as ‘President of Palestine,’ not of the Palestinian Authority. India’s former President Pranab Mukherjee and India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, have both visited Palestine, offering support for the Palestinian cause. Modi himself is likely to visit Palestine in the not-too-distant future.

Realpolitik also speaks not only through statements and speeches at diplomatic forums like the United Nations but also through geostrategic engagements. India’s love affair with Iran, a country that Israel is at loggerheads with, is a case in point.

India has had a long-standing relationship with Iran. This is reflected in India’s interest in developing Iran’s Chabahar port, considered an entrepôt to Afghanistan and Central Asia, by investing $500 million into building the port. The construction of a smelter in Iran by India’s National Aluminium Co., investment in an Iran-Afghanistan rail line by India’s state-run engineering company IRCON, could all be interpreted to be – borrowing Modi’s twitter-trending wordplay ‘I4I’ – initiatives that mean ‘India for Iran and Iran for India.’

India has very little interest in Israel’s visceral antagonism towards Iran. Indian and Iranian diplomats share a quiet, behind-the-scenes camaraderie, working out the finer details of agreements that culminated in a raft of agreements signed between India and Iran when Modi made a personal visit to Iran to assure Hassan Rouhani of India’s continued support and cooperation with Iran.

India balances its openness to Iran with cordial and friendly diplomatic relations with Arab states that are both close to and enemies of Iran: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Trade between India and Saudi Arabia stood at $25.6 Billion in 2015-16. Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner and eighth largest export market. Modi has also visited Saudi Arabia to bolster trade and security cooperation between the two countries, especially in the energy sector.

This pragmatism is not a one-way street. Israel actively engages with China (its largest trading partner in Asia, to the tune of $11.4 billion annually), welcoming the One Belt One Road by China, (a thorny issue with India) ignoring India’s deep-rooted concerns about China’s growing influence in India’s neighborhood and the Indian Ocean region.

India – Israel relations aren’t clouded by sentimentality. Both the countries have always engaged with each other and formed diplomatic alliances based on their own self-interest – diplomatically terming it as ‘politically independent decisions.’ To pretend that India-Israel diplomatic engagement is symbolic of a ‘marriage made in heaven’ is nothing but smooth-tongued flattery. If at all it does symbolize a ‘marriage’ it only points to an ‘open marriage.’

As far as the bonhomie, bromance and public display of affection are concerned, Modi and Netanyahu deserve Academy Awards for their incredible performances. We are likely to see more such incredible performances in the days to come.

As far as the producers of this media malarkey are concerned – hearty congratulations for being conscious propagandists who’ve set their journalistic critique and mission to one side in order to parrot the government line.

The question is whether, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up once more, the idea that India can ‘de-hyphenate’ between the two sides is really sustainable. It would certainly be a triumph for Modi’s foreign policy pragmatism if India can maintain its longstanding moral support for the Palestinian cause, while simultaneously boosting the Israeli government’s narrative: that the Palestinian issue remaining unresolved hasn’t, and won’t, damage burgeoning relations with more and more countries.

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