PM Netanyahu and India's Modi.
(photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Though India has, over the years, maintained intimate relations with Israel, Indian leaders have been hesitant to make these relations public.
Hence the metaphor of a “mistress” has been used by Israel to describe India’s attitude toward the Jewish state. Ties could be enjoyed but had to be kept secret.
However, New Delhi’s approach has been changing.
At the end of May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his intention to make an official visit in Israel before the end of the year. It will be the first such visit by a prime minister since India’s founding in 1947. Even after the two countries inaugurated full diplomatic relations in 1992, no Indian prime minister has made an official visit, though prime minister Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi in 2003.
Then, India chose to abstain from a vote against Israel in the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Indians declined to adopt the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, which calls to indict Israel in the International Criminal Court for “war crimes” perpetrated during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, while ignoring the warmongering of Hamas and the terrorist organization’s cynical use of its own civilian population as human shields to maximize Palestinian “martyrs.”
Indian politicians, including members of the Modi government, have attempted to play down the abstention, arguing that as India is not a signatory to the 1998 Rome Statutes, which created the court, it was simply following its policy of abstaining in votes that invoke the ICC.
This attempt to minimize India’s purported pivot toward Israel is motivated by a desire to avoid angering Muslims, including India’s significant Muslim population, which numbers more than 180 million and makes up about 15 percent of its population. But Modi’s unprecedented visit has been a bit harder to explain away for critics concerned that it is liable to hurt India’s relations with the Muslim world.
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India could have easily continued to treat Israel as its “mistress,” reaping the benefits of cooperation with the Jewish state in the fields of military technology, intelligence, agriculture, water security, hi-tech and diamonds while espousing an unabashedly pro-Palestinian line for public consumption.
What explains the change? Part of the answer has to do with a feeling that New Delhi, despite having the world’s second-largest Muslim population, has been poorly compensated for supporting the Palestinians. Arab countries have failed to back India against Pakistan in the dispute over Kashmir. Economic ties with countries such as Saudi Arabia are built on mutual interests. Besides, Israel is seen by the Saudis as an ally, at least vis-a-vis Iran.
A more important factor, however, has to do with political and social changes inside India reflected by the rise to power of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Hindutva, the ideology of Hindu-ness, has reached the apex of its influence inside the country. If India’s leftists viewed Israel as a “neo-imperialist proxy of America,” BJP supporters tend to see Israel like many Americans do, as a plucky democracy with a strong, non-Muslim religious identity standing up to nihilistic terrorists.
Many parallels can be drawn between BJP and our Likudled government. Both seek to strengthen what they see as a more authentic national identity – Hindutva in India, Jewish in Israel – while maintaining a robust democracy.
Both countries face threats from Islamist terrorists who are motivated to violence not by anything India or Israel has done, but by what the countries represent.
And ultimately, caving in to extremist Muslim dictates is bad for India. Muslim countries have next to nothing of consequence to offer India. Even cheap oil and gas can be acquired on the open market. The days of a powerful OPEC cartel is over.
In contrast, Israel has much to offer. Farmers of all faiths can benefit from Israeli expertise in drip irrigation. Startups in Bangalore and Hyderabad see Israeli firms as role models.
And Indians rightly have high regard for the society that has fostered such impressive innovation.
Combine all this with Modi’s leadership style of publicly expressing what India and Indians actually believe and value. Modi is right to conclude that India is strong and proud enough to abandon its practice of doing one thing and saying another. By ceasing to treat Israel as a “mistress,” Modi is affirming the values and goals to which he hopes his own people will aspire.
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