Narendra Modi, who departed Israel on Thursday after being the first-ever Indian prime minister to visit, spent 49 hours in the country, participated in more than a dozen events, and spoke publicly five times.
And never once did he publicly utter the word “Palestinians.”
There are many reasons why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must have hated to see the departure of his Indian counterpart, the leader of the world’s largest democracy with whom he waded barefoot into the Mediterranean on Thursday.
The trip showcased that Israel – despite anything that Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid might say – is anything but isolated in the world. It diverted everyone’s attention from the Western Wall issue that dominated the news the week before. And it was a vehicle for bringing the India-Israel relationship to the next level.
But one of the most refreshing aspects for Netanyahu was certainly that Modi did not publicly lecture or hector about the Palestinian issue. Had he come here and not coupled his visit with a quick trip to Ramallah to see Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that – in Netanyahu’s eyes – would have been enough.
But Modi did even more than that. He didn’t even mention the Palestinians in public. He didn’t slam Israel for the settlements. And in the joint statement carefully drawn up by both sides spelling out the underpinnings of the relationship, the Palestinians were not mentioned until the 20th clause of a 22-clause document.
And even there, India – which was the first non-Muslim country in 1987 to recognize “Palestine” – spoke only generically about a “just and durable peace in the region,” without explicitly calling for a two-state solution.
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Netanyahu had to wish that all his guests – especially those from Europe – behaved like Modi.
Why? What happened? How come Modi, whose country for decades was at the forefront of championing the Palestinian cause, did not even give the issue public lip service while here.
There are many reasons, some having to do with how Asians do business, others with how Modi prepared the ground for the trip, and still others dealing with India’s emerging power and status in the world.
First a word about style. India, unlike many of the European countries, does not like “megaphone diplomacy.”
The Palestinian issue was discussed during Modi’s visit – as evidenced by a photo that showed Netanyahu’s point man on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho, as well as Mossad chief Yossi Cohen – at one of the Modi-Netanyahu meetings.
But the country’s diplomatic style, according to Indian officials, is characterized by dealing with issues quietly, behind the scenes, not in the full glare of camera lights. The officials said this was something India had in common with other Asian powers, such as Japan and China, which also – unlike the Europeans – generally choose not to publicly chastise Israel over its policies.
One of the reasons, the officials said, is that India detests when other countries lecture and hector it about its fraught relationship with Pakistan, an indication New Delhi has internalized – at least when it comes to Israel – Hillel’s famous dictum about not doing to others what is hateful to you.
Secondly, Modi could get away with making this a strictly bilateral trip because he carefully prepared the ground for it.
Elected in 2014, there was talk that he would come to Israel already in the summer of 2015. He didn’t. He waited. He first went to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Iran, where he obviously explained the nature of India’s relationship with Israel, and that improved ties with Israel would not come at their expense.
He also invited PA President Mahmoud Abbas to New Delhi in May, publicly supported a Palestinian state, and pledged that India’s historical support for the Palestinians would not waver.
In other words, he got all his ducks in a row before making his historic trip to Israel, something important from an Indian perspective considering that more than seven million Indians live and work in the Persian Gulf.
All the while, from his election in 2014, the relationship with Israel kept growing, amid talk of an imminent visit. And even with this, not only was there no outcry from the Muslim world, there was also no outcry from India’s own Muslims, a population of more than 170 million people.
One of the reasons often given in the past for the brakes the Indians put on the relationship with Israel, was that a high-profile relationship would infuriate India’s Muslims.
India’s Muslims did not take to the streets when it became clear Modi wanted to visit, they didn’t raise a hue and cry. One conclusion is that the resonance of the Palestinian issue on the Muslim- populations in non-Arab countries is not as great as is often imagined. Another conclusion is that with all the turmoil in the Middle East, with the hundreds and thousands who have died in the region since the Arab Spring, the Palestinian issue has simply dropped as a priority issue.
Which does not mean that Modi is blind to domestic considerations, and the impact the issue may have on the electorate. One observer noted that it was not a coincidence that Modi’s visit happened after the regional elections in Uttar Pradesh in March, an Indian state with a strong Muslim population that stands at 19%, 5 percentage points more than the national average. Significantly, Modi’s BJP party won that election by a landslide.
And then there is the issue of India’s international standing. As a country of 1.3 billion people, with a roaring economy and a rapidly expanding middle class, India is a country with which other nations want to have good relations. The Indian market is not one that will be written off just because there may be a political disagreement.
Much has been written about India’s dependence on the Middle East for its economy – 60% of its oil, and even a higher percentage of its natural gas comes from the region. But as much as India wants to buy gas and oil, the Mideast countries, in a vastly changing energy market, want to sell.
For instance, it is hard to believe that the Saudis are going to cut back on oil sales to India to punish Modi for coming to Israel, especially since they too have a relationship – though under the radar – with Israel.
And the Palestinians, while they privately may be seething at Modi’s slight over the last two days, there is only so much they can do, only so much they will want to publicly chastise the Indians. Why? Because in the final analysis, they need gigantic India, much more than the India needs them.
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