Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India: Deepening ties with Israel a discernible shift from Nehruvian diplomacy

Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India marks the meeting of two emerging economies, both known for their developmental eagerness & infrastructural inhibitions.

Kartik Maini January 18, 2018 13:20:58 IST
Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India: Deepening ties with Israel a discernible shift from Nehruvian diplomacy

If internationalism is shared history, India and Israel were destined for amity. Both nations, however different in their geographical constituency, were carved with an intense political struggle against their hostile neighbourhood, each with a keen sense of civilizational significance in its emergence.

Such a sense was imagined with and against a sentiment of historical persecution – in Israel, this was understandably against the West, and in India, this was first against the Muslim, and only trepidantly against the British and their colonialism.

This psychological legacy of being glorious, ancient civilisations awakening after a coerced slumber of persecution is a legacy that haunts both Israel and India, particularly as they attempt to negotiate their ways with precarious minorities unwilling to share this vision of historical destiny. This amity, evident as it may appear with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's diplomatic visit, has been as difficult to forge as the two nations themselves.

Benjamin Netanyahus visit to India Deepening ties with Israel a discernible shift from Nehruvian diplomacy

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy: Twitter/vijayrupanibjp

Although the early Zionists, such as David Ben-Gurion, were keen to woo Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – whom they perceived to be the architects of modern India, whose support would, in turn, legitimise Israel as a political idea – the two were not convinced, inspired ideologically by the Palestinian cause and politically by the need to weld the Muslim minority into the national struggle and the postcolonial nation.

Gandhi, a maverick who did religion by politics and politics by religion, was convinced that while the cherished Jewish imagination of a homeland was a religious act, to do it with the force of violence would be irreligious, and therefore, unacceptable. Sympathetic to how the Jews had been rendered 'untouchables' by Christianity, the Mahatma could not reconcile himself with the violence of religion, writing in his Harijan that "the cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me".

Nehru, on the other hand, had a firmer political critique, and in that, a solution. Sympathetic to Israel in precisely the same vein as Gandhi, Nehru was nevertheless perturbed by the horrors that Israel could guiltlessly inflict on its 'Arab brothers' as well as Israel's embrace of the West against solidarity with decolonised and emergent Asian nations.

So difficult was it for Nehru to recognise Israel as a political reality that he called India's diplomatic recognition the acknowledgement of 'mere fact', desiring, till the end of his political life, the creation of a multi-religious secular nation between Israel and Palestine. That a concern for the Palestinians has become so rare in our times is less a statement on Nehru and more so on our own ethical impoverishment.

This impasse, however, was to break, even before it was broken so decisively in the present day. In 1992, India faced an economic crisis of unprecedented proportion, but even more immediate, as is little known, was a crisis of security. Although Nehruvian non-alignment had been followed as foreign policy well into the late twentieth century, India had an acknowledged and unacknowledged closeness with the Soviet Union – with its disintegration in 1991, India was left in a rapidly polarising world without a guardian; one is, however, wary of formulations which over-emphasise India's dependence to call it the condition of being orphaned.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union became an unmitigated security crisis as the USSR was India's biggest arms-supplier and chief purveyor and enabler of India's nascent military technology. Military support from Washington was forthcoming, but its subtext was the clause of surrendering hostility towards Israel – this, India was reluctant to do, but in its desperate times was merely compelled to.

American support, however, was taxingly conditional, and when India conducted a prominent nuclear test in 1998, Washington's empathic advance was withdrawn, citing its professed and zealous commitment towards non-proliferation. It was this that drove India to Israel, renowned as the latter had come to be for its deft military imitation of the West on both organisational and technological grounds.

India has since remained an avid and keenly consuming friend of Israel's enviable military capability. Politically, however, this is a relationship that has been covert by its character, for reasons too ambiguous to be clearly deciphered. Nevertheless, India embarked on a search for military prowess after the untimely fall of its preferred superpower, and in Israel, this search did appear to end. This exchange remained an exchange for as long as national governments affiliated to the UPA could keep it, desirous of cabinet-level interaction and expressions of a covert political armistice.

With Netanyahu's diplomatic overture and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's willing embrace of it – interestingly dubbed 'huglomacy' by the Indian National Congress, what was covert and unsaid is now overt and declared.

As Professor PR Kumaraswamy, one of India's few experts on Israel has adroitly tracked, a friendship is born, and in its freshness, its own scale has been redrawn. "For long", he writes, "military-security consideration has dominated the bilateral relations and is often seen as the core component. Important as they are, the relations are getting diversified and encompass soft, less hyper and even unattractive areas, such as agriculture and water management."

As India and Israel face each other in impeccable, vaunted acknowledgement, it has become possible, if not easier, to find intersections of interest; such intersections, in the process of being explored, have diversified bilateral engagement, creating new avenues of what is politically conceivable – science, technology, energy, trade, agriculture.

That Modi and Netanyahu have exchanged messages and diplomatic pleasantries in the language of the other is itself the index of a turning tide; such a cultural affinity goes against Gandhi and the Nehruvian consensus that identified with the Zionist cause but not its modality, and never, more importantly, its wanton violence.

Why this palpable change? An easily discernible trend is Modi's careful courting of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, even Palestine. This is inspired by a muscular, militarist vision of development, a marked departure from Nehru's romanticism of slow, but sure, development and graceful, painless transition.

In this vision, Netanyahu's visit is the meeting of two emerging economies, both known for their developmental eagerness and infrastructural inhibitions. They realise that it is based on this negotiation that nations become great, and as a particular kind of greatness is proliferated across the world, are vociferously keen to replicate it.

A less commonly acceptable thread, but one that cannot nevertheless be ignored, is the ideological affinity between Zionism and Hindutva. There is a curious attraction between the two, and this, it is argued, is palpable in their governments, known as both Netanyahu and Modi are for the ideological texture of their politics. Unsurprisingly, parallels between Palestine and Kashmir are drawn to reflect on the unforgiving sway of the two nations, and this remains difficult to disagree with.

Yet, India's courting of Israel, or vice versa, is careful only in its theatrics. Modi recognises that Palestine remains, in so far as Israel as measured against it, the elephant in the room, but his negotiation of the issue in striking his careful balance has been unsteady, even dangerous. As is well known, India voted against the international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in the UN General Assembly in December 2017, a diplomatic reality that purportedly has Netanyahu disappointed, having previously hosted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in May 2017.

On the contrary, India has never exhibited reluctance in recognising Israeli sovereignty, a fact that ruptures Indian sympathy with the Palestinian cause. What one is left with, in the offing, is a fractured negotiation and it is apparent that if this is to be a relationship that India carries beyond diplomatic theatrics, a finality is imperative in the moment.

Secondly, and finally, in taking Netanyahu across BJP-ruled states and stifling the possibility of contact with representatives of the Indian National Congress, a perplexingly hazardous political implication is being crafted.

"This is a short-sighted strategic move," said Professor Kumaraswamy, "and might dent the national consensus vis-à-vis Israel. The Congress party and its allies will be more than happy to depict the Netanyahu visit as a BJP-Likud affair than an India-Israeli event."

In these interesting times when the margins of what is the nation and who is national are being rapidly redrawn, Modi's negotiation of Netanyahu, Israel, and Palestine promises to have alterations beyond the foreign.

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