Will the Bibi-Modi bromance deliver?

The two leaders have transformed the images of their nations on the global stage and while doing that have brought the two democracies closer.

August 1, 2019 22:48
Will the Bibi-Modi bromance deliver?

PRIME MINISTER of India Narendra Modi looks on during his 2017 visit to Israel as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signs a document of cooperation.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans his second trip to India on September 9, right before the Israeli elections scheduled for September 17, to affirm and remind the Israeli electorate of the positive image of Israel he has established over the years through his personal relationships with world leaders. What better place to affirm Israel’s positive image than India, a country that has in recent years moved the needle more toward Israel? This strategic shift in policy can be attributed to its visionary leaders, Netanyahu and Narendra Modi.

The two leaders have transformed the images of their nations on the global stage and while doing that have brought the two democracies closer. Testament to that is India voting in favor of a decision introduced by Israel in the UN Economic and Social Council that objected to granting consultative status to a Palestinian nongovernmental organization last month; Modi skipping Ramallah in his trip to Israel in 2017; and Modi hosting Bibi as the chief guest for the 2018 Raisina Dialogue, a multilateral conference committed to addressing the most challenging issues facing the global community. Their personal friendship leaves one bemused since Netanyahu and Modi are poles apart.

Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in the capital city of Jerusalem. He was educated in premier American institutions and worked in the private sector, where he was introduced to a lifestyle of luxury that he continues to live to this day.

Contrast that to Modi, born into a lower middle-income household in Vadnagar, a small town in the state of Gujarat. Modi’s rise is a rags-to-riches story, or in his case, chaiwalla (tea-seller) to pradhan mantree (prime minister) story. Two individuals could not have led an even more contrasting life. However, in their case, opposites have attracted.

Historically, the Israel-India relationship was referred to as an affair by both local and international media. It is safe to say that Netanyahu and Modi have managed to turn the affair into a relationship. The primary reason for that transition can be the mutual interests of finding democratic partners in their fight against radical Islam, dealing with state-sponsored terrorism, and in growing their vibrant economies through trade. In their fight against terrorism and their respective enemies, both Netanyahu and Modi have earned titles.
Mr. Security & Chowkidar

In the 2019 election trail, Modi referred to himself as the “Chowkidar,” the Hindi word for security guard or watchman. He changed his Twitter handle to Chowkidar Modi, and his party members followed his lead. That title of watchman of the Indian people was befitting to a leader who had delivered five years of peace and a drastic drop in terrorist attacks on civilians. His counterpart in Israel, Netanyahu, referred to as “Mr. Security” and “the keeper of Israel,” has seen in his term in office from 2009 through 2019 no “loss” of land and no major Arab-Israeli war.

Contrast that to the first decade of the 21st century in which Israel withdrew from Lebanon (2000) and from the Gaza Strip (2005) in attempts to initiate new solutions to old problems. In the Netanyahu years, Israel did not withdraw from territories and even deepened its grip on the West Bank. This strategy continues to challenge any resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict but is perceived by many Israelis as strengthening and keeping Israel safe.

Foreign policy influence on domestic elections - Palestine & Pakistan

Both leaders got an election mandate from their people for their hard-line views on national security and the economy. Netanyahu and Modi capitalized on the security concerns and the economic woes of their people and campaigned hard on the twin agenda. While experts attribute Modi’s second term in office to his campaigning on the success of Balakot air strikes in Pakistan, Netanyahu’s campaign has emphasized the diplomatic victories on the global stage, such as the most recent pro-Israel decisions taken by the Trump administration: moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, pulling out of the JCPOA, and recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, as well as the hard military line spoken against Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

While Netanyahu can boast of those diplomatic wins, on his India trip Bibi’s focus will be on trade and defense contracts. India is Israel’s largest arms market, valued at over $1 billion annually. The recent signing of the deal valued at $50 million to supply complementary Naval MRSAM by the Israel Aerospace Industries to the Indian Navy, as well as Mazagon Shipbuilders and the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems signing of the contract with Kalyani Rafael Advanced Systems Ltd India for $100 million will give Israel something to celebrate. The major contention will be the recently scrapped $500 million deal of the Spike anti-tank missiles of Rafael. That deal has been on and off the table. It could be on Bibi’s agenda to revive the deal and bring home another victory, and an excellent topic for conversation during the election week.

In the final weeks leading up to the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu met with US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring home good news: getting access to the remains of a soldier from Syria with the help of Russia, and Trump formally recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Will his India trip bear such good news, possibly through trade and defense contracts, and if it does will that seal the deal for Netanyahu? Time will tell if Modi’s winning streak will rub off on Netanyahu. 

Akhil Ramesh is a foreign policy analyst based out of New York. He has conducted extensive research on the political and economic environments of the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on South Asia. He has worked for premier risk consulting and nonprofits in New York City. Shenhav Ruttner is a master’s of international affairs student at Columbia University who specializes in international security policy and international conflict resolution. She is a lieutenant-commander (res.) in the Israeli Navy.

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