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BRP Bhaskar: Modi-Netanyahu bonhomie
January 23, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Less than four weeks after reaffirming its traditional support to Palestine by voting against the United States decision to shift its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, India gave a rousing welcome to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was determined to give Netanyahu as warm a reception as was given to him when he visited Israel last July. The red carpet was rolled out at Delhi airport and Modi, setting aside protocol, greeted him with a hug. Both leaders participated in a spectacular road show in Gujarat, Modi’s home state.

Does the bonhomie witnessed during the Netanyahu mark a tectonic shift in the relations between the two countries which were extremely cool during most of their seven decades?

The media in both countries played up the visit. In a Mumbai despatch under the headline “India, where Israel’s image is positive,” the Jerusalem Post said Modi received Netanyahu with such warmth as he wanted to send a message to India’s massive population that Israel is a friend.

Netanyahu hailed India-Israel relations as a “marriage made in heaven”. That, an Indian scribe pointed out, was not an original statement. Last March, while in Beijing, he had told the Chinese that Israel could be their perfect junior partner in the Middle East and “I believe this is a marriage made in heaven”.

No doubt there is a good deal of affinity between the ideologies of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Netanyahu’s Likud party, which are based on a kind of religious nationalism.

The members of the BJP’s cyber force, dubbed Internet Hindus, are ardent admirers of Israel and its high-handed actions against the Palestinians. But large sections of the population remain sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. There were anti-Netanyahu demonstrations during all the six days he was in India but the media ignored them.

When the United Nations was considering the Anglo-American resolution to create the state of Israel, India had unsuccessfully batted for a two-state solution. Once the Israeli state became a reality, India recognised it but did not enter into diplomatic relations with it.. Israel was, however, allowed to establish a consulate in Mumbai to take care of commercial interests.

In 1977, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan secretly visited India and held talks with government leaders but establishment of diplomatic ties had to wait until 1992 when PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister.

Lack of diplomatic relations did not stand in the way of cooperation between India and Israel in times of need. A few weeks ago India had cancelled a $ 500-million deal to buy anti-tank guided missiles from Israel because of dissatisfaction over lack of technology transfer arrangements. Netanyahu tried to win back the contract, and told Israeli media it was back on track. There was no definite word on this from Indian officials.

One factor that makes defence deals with Israel attractive is that they often make it possible to acquire technology which the US is unable or unwilling to transfer directly.

Apart from the areas of security and defence, India is interested in Israel’s expertise in water management and agriculture. There is an agreement for cooperation in these areas.

Nine new agreements were signed during the Netanyahu visit. They envisage cooperation in such areas as oil and gas sector, space technology, solar thermal technology, cyber security, research in homeopathic medicine and joint film production.

Some sections in both India and Israel are eager to read ideological affinity into the growing relationship between the two countries but it is essentially pragmatic and transactional. This will be clear when India’s political and diplomatic engagements of recent years in the Middle East and Israel’s wooing of China are viewed in their totality.

Some of Israel’s enemies have been India’s good friends since long. Aware of the factors that bind the country with them, Modi has taken care to nurture the ties. He visited Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2016 and the UAE, Turkey and Qatar in 2017. He is due to visit UAE again next month as keynote speaker at the World Government Summit.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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