The importance of personal equations in diplomacy is arguable. In an ideal world, the affairs of the state must be guided by its interests and not of those who rule it. But this is not an ideal world, which is why, when two leaders meet, much is made of their personal chemistry. In the case of Modi and Netanyahu, it has gone to a whole new level.
Modi got the reception reserved for the Pope and the US President. Netanyahu was on the tarmac with his entire cabinet to welcome him. They met like old friends. Netanyahu even tried his hand at Modi-style acronyms - I-square plus T-square – India and Israel, Talent and Technology (with a silent P-square in the equation perhaps, Pakistan and Palestine). On his part, Modi praised Israel as the leader in innovation. These aren't just niceties. There's an unmistakable element of personal admiration here. Modi appreciates, even emulates, the Israeli no-nonsense way of doing business.
One of the things that the Indian Prime Minister has consistently done is reach out to the diaspora wherever he goes. From Madison square to Wembley, his team has organized events equaling rock-star shows in scale and buzz. He went to the Tel Aviv Convention Centre bearing gifts of OCI cards and better flight connectivity. Why should a politician spend this kind of effort and energy on wooing people who aren’t even his potential voters? The only other Indian Prime Minister who did something like this, in his own style, was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The country that has mastered this outreach is Israel, tapping into the resource and influence of Jews the world over.
Jews are only 0.2 percent of the world population. Yet they repeatedly make up half of the top hundred lists of the powerful and the rich. There are almost as many Jews in the US as in Israel, a lobby that pushes for the cause of the latter. Google and Facebook have major set ups in Israel, their founders Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Mark Zukerberg are all Jewish. From media magnates to Nobel prize winners, top bankers to successive presidential advisors, Jews in positions of power give back to Israel. The most influential couple in the white house right now, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, are practicing orthodox Jews. Indian PM Modi, very early in his term, took a leaf out of the Israeli book to leverage people of Indian origin abroad.
He also adopted Israel’s no holds barred approach in dealing with terrorism. Both countries have for long been cooperating on homeland security, counter terrorism and defense. But guns without guts don’t get results. India neither has the legal framework to carry out operations like the Israelis do, nor has shown the political will to go the whole hog. The surgical strikes of last November against Pakistani terror launchpads along the line of control were reminiscent of the precision strikes Israel has launched against terrorists. Notwithstanding the debate in India about whether last year’s strikes were the first of their kind conducted by the Indian army, the fact is that this govt shed the baggage of convention and propriety and showed an element of brazenness, just like the Israelis.
And then there’s business. Just shy of 5 billion dollars in bilateral annual trade right now, but as Netanyahu said the sky is the limit. Modi wants to take the best practices from the start up nation. But he’ll also have to adjust the attitudes back home. As an Israeli businessman told me, there is a basic difference in approach. When Indians yes, it could mean both yes and no. When Israelis say no, they mean it. Businessmen from Israel have often struggled to figure things out in negotiations with Indians. Modi’s meeting with CEOs is an indication that he wants to help them tide over the challenges.
At last count, Modi and Netanyahu had hugged each other 7 times in 24 hours before the cameras. That’s saying something, even by Modi’s standards. How much of this embrace has been extended to cultural, security and trade ties will be evident in the days ahead.
Palki Sharma Upadhyay is an editor and anchor at WION. She hosts India's only international news and views prime time show called "Gravitas."