Long before he landed in New Delhi, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made it amply clear he wasn’t about to allow small matters like a UN vote or a cancelled defence deal ruin his burgeoning bromance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sure enough, when the two leaders were reunited, they bear-hugged and swapped effusive sentiments with Modi referring to Netanyahu as “my friend Bibi” (his nickname) and the Israeli leader calling Modi a “kindred spirit”. Netanyahu hit all the right notes, talking about how some of the world’s greatest texts are in Sanskrit and Hebrew and told Modi for good measure: “It’s an amazing fact that until you visited Israel no leader of India in 3,000 years .....has visited Israel.” In a speech in Delhi, he also pointedly referred to “lessons of Jewish history” and explained why he’s eager to draw close to India. “The weak don’t survive. You make alliances with the strong.”
It was a pragmatic Congress prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, who decided India should recognise Israel 25 years ago. From 1947, India had stuck to its guns and refused to recognise Israel because of the Palestinian issue. But even after recognising Israel, previous Indian governments kept an arm’s length from the country, even though we quietly bought powerful weapons from them. We now purchase about $1-billion worth of arms from Israel and they’re likely to become our largest weapons suppliers in coming years. That’s one reason why the Israelis haven’t grumbled much even though India recently scrapped a $500-million deal to buy anti-tank missiles from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (there’s now talk the deal may be revived). Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu is accompanied by a 130-member business delegation and there’s talk of an India-Israel free-trade pact that could boost bilateral trade worth $4.5 billion annually, mostly in Tel Aviv’s favour. Netanyahu also stressed Israel could offer India technology in vital areas like agriculture and irrigation.
For India, drawing closer to Israel is all about performing one more adroit juggling act under West Asian skies. The fact is we need to stay on good diplomatic terms with pretty much every country that counts in a region so crucial for us. We’ve always had excellent relations with Iran, currently Israel’s greatest foe. Despite US sanctions against Iran, we’ve recently opened Chabahar port near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which gives us a clear route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Then, there’s Saudi Arabia which Modi visited in 2016 and which also looks upon Iran with its 80-million, mostly Shia population, as its arch-enemy. The Israelis and the Saudis have, in recent years, been drawn together by their common fear of Iran. In the UN, India voted against the US move to shift its embassy to Jerusalem and Modi may even visit the Palestinian areas in the near future. Netanyahu called the India-Israel relationship “a marriage made in heaven” but some commentators have remarked it’s more like an open marriage. Right now, neither Netanyahu nor Modi seems in the least bothered by that.