Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The significance of the Netanyahu-Modi meeting in New York

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Asia

Israel and India have been gradually developing closer ties since India's formal diplomatic recognition of Israel in 1992. Today Israel is one of the largest military suppliers to India, and Israeli agricultural technologies including drip irrigation are helping feed India's huge population. While trade and investment between Israel and India have flourished, and today is estimated around US$6 billion, (high level political contacts between Israel and India have frequently lagged behind. That is what made Israeli Prime Minister's Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 28 in New York particularly significant. It was the first meeting between Israeli and Indian premiers since 2003, when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon travelled to India.

Netanyahu's meeting with Modi was symbolic of a growing diplomatic relationship to accompany the long-standing economic one. The leaders discussed key issues including Iran's nuclear program, the threat of Islamist extremism, as well as a joint cyber defence initiative. Netanyahu also invited Modi to visit Israel. Modi travelled to Israel in 2006 as a local Indian governor, but if he accepts it would be the first time a serving Indian Prime Minister, has made an official visit to Israel.

While different political parties in India, including the left leaning Congress party have expanded trade and investment with Israel since 1992, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, which emphasises Hindu identity, appear more sympathetic to Israel and interested in further developing high level political ties.

Indian journalist and writer Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute explored this issue in an article in the Wall Street Journal on July 23:

"To begin with, the Modi administration arguably has more natural affinity with Israel than any previous Indian government. Mr. Modi visited Israel as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and has spoken publicly about emulating the Jewish state's remarkable economic success. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj used to head an India-Israel ‘friendship forum' in Parliament. Several parliamentarians and intellectuals aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have traveled more than once to Israel.

Unlike India's leftists, who tend to view Israel as a ‘neoimperialist aggressor' oppressing the Palestinians, most BJP supporters see the Jewish state more like most Americans do - as a doughty democracy standing up to terrorism in a rough neighborhood. Both countries face a threat from Islamist terrorists."

Dhume also noted that while a Congress led party established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, its political relationship with Israel was generally cool - partly because of domestic political calculations.

"In 2004, when Congress returned to power under Sonia Gandhi after ousting the BJP, India-Israel ties turned frosty... Though dressed up in principle, Congress's tilt toward the Palestinians was all about domestic politics. It assumed that India's 150 million Muslims are almost uniformly hostile to Israel and care more about the issue than do other Indians... For India, an end to the so-called Muslim veto is unambiguously good news. The challenge for India's new government is to consolidate this positive sentiment toward Israel to ensure that no future administration can backslide again."

Netanyahu and Modi were both in New York for the United Nations General Assembly gathering of world leaders. Netanyahu told Modi at a press appearance, "We are two old peoples, some of the oldest of the nations on earth, but we're also two democracies; we're proud of our rich traditions but we're also eager to seize the future. I believe that if we work together we can do so with benefits to both our peoples."

Modi said through a translator, "I agree with you that India-Israel relations are [historic]... I met this morning with the people from the Jewish community, American Jewish Committee, and they all appreciated that there is a deep recognition in Israel that India is the only country where anti-Semitism has never been allowed to come up, where Jews have never suffered and lived as an integral part of our society.  There was a time in the city of Mumbai that Hebrew was officially taught in the university and even one of the mayors of Mumbai city was from a Jewish family."

As Yair Rosenberg noted in Tablet, in an article titled, "The Most Important Thing Netanyahu Did in New York Wasn't at the U.N. It was meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi":

"The [Netanyahu-Modi] encounter was the culmination of burgeoning Israeli-Indian relations that have been deepening behind-the-scenes and are now bursting into the open. As Bard College's Walter Russell Mead wrote in 2010, when Israel was polling more positively in India than even in America:
'Currently, Israel isn't just popular in India. It is India's largest supplier of high-tech weapons and the growing cooperation between the two countries is spreading into both economic and political fields. There is a strategic compatibility in their interests. Economically, the marriage of Indian and Israeli high-tech know how with India's enormous force of educated, English-speaking labor, its vast internal market, and Israel's marketing experience and connections with the advanced industrial economies make for a natural complementarity. Israel welcomes the rise of Indian economic and political influence in the Middle East and East Africa. Both countries view the activities of radicals in Pakistan and their use of Pakistan and Afghanistan for wider regional ambitions with deep concern.'"

Support for Israel in India was also recently seen during the recent Gaza conflict. The largest pro-Israel international protest took place in India with over 20,000 people, and the hashtag #IndiaWithIsrael trended on Twitter.

Arsen Ostrovsky commented on the growing positive view of Israel in the Indian street in a piece in the Indian paper, The Pioneer:

"Importantly, there is a growing positive reflection of Israel, and Israeli people, on the Indian street, with Indians strongly admiring Israel's breathtakingly successful entrepreneurial and innovative culture, especially for a nation that is only a miniscule fraction of its size and population. Indians are also increasingly seeing Israel as an ally in their battle against Islamic extremism.
As for Israel, it has traditionally been very Euro and US centric in terms of its trade and foreign policy. But the current Government especially has recognised that Israel is in an increasingly global world, there is great opportunity for developing ties in Asia, which for many years were either neglected or under-appreciated. Today, Jerusalem understands and fully appreciates that there is increasing demand and admiration for the Jewish state's technology and innovation, including in India, and it is keen to capitalise on that."

Moreover, the Indian government was also sympathetic to Israel during the Israel-Gaza conflict. On July 8, India's Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the "tragic loss of civilian lives" in the Gaza Strip while also noting alarm at "cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks" on Israel. Modi's government also refused to censure Israel in the Indian Parliament despite political pressure. This was in contrast to eight years ago, when a previous Parliament condemned Israel in a one-sided resolution passed during Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

However, Rosenberg also writes that we should not overstate the new public displays of affection:

"At the same time, the acceleration of India-Israel relations should not be overstated. While the trend towards greater and more public cooperation is undeniable, it is also gradual, and tempered by India's 180 million Muslims, many of whom take a more critical posture towards the Jewish state. Modi himself was barred from the United States for years after 2002 riots in his province of Gujarat resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, including hundreds of Muslims, though he was cleared of wrongdoing by India's Supreme Court in 2012. A Hindu nationalist, the prime minister has worked to distance himself from the violence and cast himself as an inclusive leader, but many remain skeptical. One test of this persona will be how Modi balances building ties with Israel with representing the grievances of India's Muslims. An attempt to finesse this tension was India's vote in favor of the U.N. Human Rights Council's inquiry into the Gaza conflict, with a mandate that did not mention Hamas and was consequently rejected by the U.S. and European Union. Given that the success of the vote was a foregone conclusion in a body stacked with Israel's opponents, however, India's assent was largely symbolic."

Similarly, Mark Sofer, a former Israeli Ambassador to India notes in the Hindustan Times that while the relationship is flourishing it is still developing:

"It is not necessarily that any new major agreement was entered into, rather that two friendly countries should and must carry out the highest-level political dialogue, and when such a meeting will become unremarkable, we will know that the ties are not only flourishing but also normal."

Therefore, the meeting between Netanyahu and Modi reflects blossoming opportunities for both diplomatic and economic cooperation between Israel and India, and as Netanyahu said at the start of their meeting, "the sky is the limit".

Sharyn Mittelman


Most recent items in: Asia