Even Modi’s Israel visit cannot help Netanyahu’s political fortunes

Politicians always put a positive gloss on reality, but that should not deceive anyone who analyses Narendra Modi’s Israel visit. India-Israel ties are improving but it’s not mostly civilian, and policy-wise both governments are almost poles apart

opinion Updated: Jul 07, 2017 17:56 IST
Narendra Modi,Binyamin Netanyahu,Donald Trump
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds hands with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during a meeting with Indian community in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2017. Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Israel for what he called a "groundbreaking" first ever visit by an Indian premier, with growing ties between the two countries including billion of dollars in defence deals. / AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN(AFP)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel was an unequivocal public relations success. India as a nation and Modi personally were celebrated for several days. While the Modi visit did not overshadow United States President Donald Trump’s recent touchdown in Israel, it was a close second. As far as can be discerned by public and media reactions, Modi’s warmth towards his hosts, his simple lifestyle and the affinity many Israelis have already felt towards a country and culture they had some inkling of won the day.

It was worth Modi’s while to have invested in this trip.

This success, however, partly stemmed from a clever ploy jointly orchestrated by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his esteemed guest. They have put up a smokescreen, hiding from view the most important aspects of the relationship between their governments – both those based on mutual interests, known to all but best left back unheralded, and conversely, substantive differences in policy between Delhi and Tel Aviv.

If one were to believe the public declarations and photo opportunities, here are two nations mostly focused on trade and economy, technology and development, innovation and bettering the lot of the respective populations. Noble causes, to be sure, but far from the real – or at least the whole – story.

First, though it was on purpose only mentioned as an afterthought this time around, Israel’s main concern in India has to do with its defence deals. Israel’s defence industry is a mainstay of the country’s economy, employing the best and the brightest of scientists and engineers who would have been otherwise lured away; bringing in billions of dollars in export sales; enabling the Israel Defense Forces to enjoy lower prices thanks to economy-of-scale production, and providing funds for R&D without which it risks falling behind. It is also politically influential.

The Israel Aircraft industries’ (IAI) veteran union leader has made the plants 100,000 strong employees and family members a potent force in the Likud party, as they follow his instructions en-bloc when the party list of candidates is selected prior to general elections.

This IAI-Likud connection is now the focus of a police criminal investigation. At other times, it would have been a major story, but Israelis have become accustomed to ministers and other senior officials questioned, indicted, convicted and jailed. With a president recently released after serving a prison term for sex offences, a prime minister just out following a short stint for fraud and obstruction of justice and a chief rabbi who pocketed bribes sharing a cell with other white-collar offenders, a minister involved in a scandal hardly raises an eyebrow.

This state of affairs does not apply to Netanyahu himself. He is involved in two serious criminal investigations, with either one or both soon to be handed over by the police to prosecutors with findings against him and a recommendation to indict him on corruption charges. In a separate case, such a recommendation was entered against his wife, the widely unpopular Sara Netanyahu. For both of them, it is crucial to appear for a while in another setting, hosting world leaders and perhaps indicating to the attorney general mulling over their fate how essential it is to Israel that Netanyahu stay at the helm.

Policy-wise, both Netanyahu and Modi are almost poles apart, but Israelis never heard about it this week. Yes, there is an ideological affinity between Right-wing, anti-Muslim politicians – and voters – in both countries. Ironically, the Congress, which should have been more in tune with Israel’s more moderate Labour in decades past, was distinctly pro-Arab and cool towards Israel. Modi has no such qualms.

He is, however, calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, much like the rest of the world, and many Israelis, though not Netanyahu, Likud and parties to the right of them. In UN votes, India has softened its objections to Israel’s policy from ‘against’ to ‘abstains’, but this had no practical effect on the results. Modi’s position was made clear before the visit to Israel, including in a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas – but, conveniently, not during his sojourn in Jerusalem, which skipped the usual side trip to Ramallah. Thus, a show of total agreement, flavoured by platitudes about peace, love and yoga.

And in the same vein, Iran. Modi supports the JCPOA, the nuclear deal between Iran and (essentially) the rest of the world minus Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is of course a major factor in India’s energy and investment projections. For Netanyahu, support for the JCPOA is anathema, but for the sake of a warm hug with Modi, he let it pass.

Politicians would always try to put a positive gloss on reality. Those who analyse the Modi visit should not be deceived. Yes, the relationship is fine and improving, but no, it is not mostly civilian, it does not mean that the governments agree on Iran and Palestine, and it is not going to help Netanyahu in his private Judgement Day, coming soon.

Amir Oren is a senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 07, 2017 17:47 IST