The design to host Modi had a bit of everything that was required off Jerusalem to make sure there is no scope of a ‘step back’ on the Indo–Israeli front, curating a programme that was as much Bollywood as diplomacy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much awaited visit to Israel, making him the first Indian head of government to do so, was an anticipated event. Most analysts agree that Modi’s visit is a major course correction for Indian foreign policy, and that New Delhi could not continue to see Israel from the point of view of shattered windowpanes of Palestine forever, much to the delight of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (street name, Bibi).
There is no doubt that Modi’s visits to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has set the precedence for broader Indo–Israeli collaboration and cooperation. Israel has become India’s third largest military provider over the past three fiscal years, and as we know, India is the world’s single largest importer of arms, thanks to our geography and continuous failures to develop a fail proof and robust indigenous defence manufacture and procurement ecosystem.
Despite the above dynamic, defence was kept at an arm’s length away from the three-day long Modi–Netanyahu Glastonbury. This worked in favour of both India and Israel. Jerusalem got a good opportunity to showcase Israel’s technological prowess beyond the weapons sector, with agriculture, water security and other fields finding space to gain prominence beyond the ‘weapons provider’ narrative. Upon landing, after a boisterous welcome ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, where Bibi was much more receptive to Modi’s love for bear hugs than Donald Trump was few days earlier, asking Modi, “what took you so long?” The Indian prime minister was then taken to a flower farm to discuss floriculture. Here, Israel announced that it was to name a breed of chrysanthemum flower as ‘Modi’, sending analysts, including your writer, into a tizzy whether these were literally just flowers or weaponised MOSSAD articles (MOSSAD is the most popular Israeli multinational corporation brand in India).
Israel pulled all the stops to make sure Modi’s trip was one full of personal gestures and newsworthy uptake, with the Indian media covering the trip with much more gusto than the Modi–Trump summit in Washington DC. Strategists strategically strategised strategical strategy of the India–Israel relationship; one that most wonks believe was going to be critical for New Delhi in areas such as high-grade technologies, global counterterrorism narratives, highlighting the issues of crossborder terrorism and the rising global radical Islam threat.
However, Israel pulled off its role as the host to military grade precision. The design to host Modi had a bit of everything that was required off Jerusalem to make sure there is no scope of a ‘step back’ on the Indo–Israeli front, curating a programme that was as much Bollywood as diplomacy. Bibi showered praises on Modi, as if they had been long-lost prime ministers, and even enlightened him about his first ever date as a young lad in an Indian restaurant. “Almost 30 years ago I went on a date in Tel Aviv in an Indian restaurant, and produced two fine children,” Bibi was quoted as saying, perhaps adding almost a new dimension to our understanding of what dining out means (Modi did not deliberate about his first date). Later on, after visiting the Haifa cemetery where Indian soldiers from World War I were honoured, both the leaders spent some time at the beach where Israel displayed its water desalination technology. However, it was quite evident that the Indian side did not get the correct attire memo for this particular event. To further the charm offensive, the Israeli Prime Minister even announced a new acronym, acknowledging Modi’s affinity for the same by launching ‘I2 T2‘, or Indian Talent times Israeli Technology, almost beating the Indian guest at his own game.
For Israel, the fact that the Modi government is in power was the opportune time to push for what is a version of de-hyphenation between the Israel and Palestine narratives. Increasingly, with India’s globally marketed posture against terrorism, New Delhi is finding itself more aligned towards the Israeli narrative, more by circumstances than design. Even as India maintained its stance of its historical support for a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conundrum, and hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May, there is now an underlying acceptance in Palestine and the Arab world over India’s engagement with Israel, a long overdue narrative correction. It is perhaps also imperative to remember here that in fact former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was open to become the first Indian leader to visit Israel himself, only to be blocked by lobbying forces within the Congress party. And the fact that Modi did not visit Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, has more to do with his own personal security concerns than any political or ideological stand.
Both Modi and Bibi supporters as well, who have played a significant role in bridging the public discourse gaps between Israel and India, have much in common. An underlying sense of anti-Islam piggybacking on the very present Islamist terrorism issue is a uniting ideological bridge that will help both the leaders in taking this newfound personalised acceptance forward. However, this should not become the cornerstone of the bilateral engagement and understanding, which could give a dangerous precedence to an unwelcomed narrative.As news of lynching against Muslims over the issue of beef become more and more normal in India over the past few months, let us not forget the similar narrative space in Israeli discourse as well, which saw Israelis lining up with chairs, drinks and food to ‘watch’ the bombardment of Gaza, applauding every explosion, as Danish journalist Allan Sorensen described it in 2014. These ideals should not be the ones that add color to the current grey areas of the New Delhi–Jerusalem discourse.
Despite the issues being faced by both the countries on domestic fronts, it makes a lot of sense on grounds of commonalities within the international order for India and Israel to expand their bilateral status. Modi’s trip has broken a long-standing itch for the Israelis, who have consistently maintained their patient approach for more robust relations with India.
This commentary originally appeared in DNA India.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).