External Affairs

There are Dangers for India in Modi’s Embrace of Israel

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What could the bond between Modi and Netanyahu, who seem to have a degree of unquestioned authority within their countries, be?



Prime Minister Narendra Modi accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the welcome ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel on Tuesday. Credit: PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is travelling to Israel on July 4 for a three-day visit while avoiding any manner of contact with Palestinian political authorities or civil society. This visit is widely heralded as a key moment in India’s foreign relations. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his eagerness to host an event to mark a quarter century of diplomatic ties. “My friend” is how Netanyahu has addressed Modi on Twitter. The Israeli media is in a mood of high expectancy, with one paper priming public opinion for a person described as the “most important prime minister in the world”.
What could the bond between these two leaders, both of whom seem at this time to have a degree of unquestioned authority within their countries, be?
Perhaps it is their shared susceptibility to myths of national glory. Modi functions in campaign mode at most times, where declamation and exhortation substitutes for seriously engaged or reflective speech. In rare moments of reflection he has allowed himself certain fantasies, as with the legend of Lord Ganesha being evidence that advanced surgical transplants were done in ancient India.

Modi may have spoken in jocular vein, but Netanyahu would surely never seek that alibi. His own references to mythology are underpinned, at all times, by dead serious intent.


In damage control mode following the bloody Israeli military raid on a flotilla bringing aid to besieged Gaza in 2010, Netanyahu flew a group of American reporters to Jerusalem. Among the artefacts he proudly displayed was a millennia old signet ring, excavated in Jerusalem and bearing the name “Netanyahu,” identified in turn, to have belonged to a Jewish official of the time. That for him and his gullible American audience was sufficient proof of Israel’s historic claim to the land of Palestine.


Israel under pressure

The signet ring soon became a part of standard Netanyahu spin. He repeated the same claim in the UN General Assembly in 2011, adding the leavening that his first name Benjamin, or Binyamin – son of Jacob – was also understood in Biblical scripture as Israel.

American journalist Max Blumenthal explains the truth behind this claim in his 2013 book Goliath, an indispensable guide to the current state of Israeli politics and society: “What was Netanyahu’s connection to the ring, and by extension, to the ancient land of Israel? There was none. Netanyahu’s grandfather, Nathan Milikovsky, had merely changed his name to Netanyahu after he emigrated from Lithuania to Palestine. Thus Netanyahu had a much closer relation to the former Alaskan governor and vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, whose Lithuanian maternal grandfather was rumoured to be a Jew”.


In recent times, Netanyahu has not had a very easy time with his western allies. After years of indulgence for Israel’s expansionist urges, the West is showing a faint glimmer of awakening to the disastrous denial of Palestinian rights. In circumstances where Israel’s intent to render Palestinians into a state of permanent displacement are abundantly clear, global civil society has stepped up to shame weak-kneed governments. The “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) movement was launched by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society actors, to hold Israeli entities to account – where culpability was proven – for the occupation and the daily violations of the human rights of Palestinians. Since the call went out from Palestine in 2005, BDS has gained traction especially in Israel’s traditionally unquestioning allies in the West.
Israel’s response has been to deploy the jaded political insult of “anti-semitism” against the BDS campaign, to rudely rebuff even the friendly advice of western allies, and double down on the moral righteousness of its claim to the whole of Palestine. It has unleashed a propaganda barrage, dignified as public diplomacy or hasbara, which Netanyahu has emerged as the principal exponent of, with his slick manner and fluent American-accent.
Didactic lectures in history suffused with claims of Israel’s Biblical antiquity as a nation, have been a regular part of Netanyahu’s propaganda effort. This is usually accompanied by dire warnings against conceding any ground to radical Islam. The Palestinian struggle for recognition is wrapped within the global menace of terrorism, which in turn is traced to a number of sources, though none more malign than Iran. After the elaborate contrivance of spotting an Iranian hand behind every evil stalking the world, an obsessive warning is sounded that the menace could soon acquire a nuclear dimension.
These anxieties of the Zionist state really sharpened after the US invasion of Iraq produced the partly anticipated outcome of vastly boosting Iran’s regional clout. Reflecting on how the US in Iraq had transformed relative stability into nightmarish confusion, two respected American political scientists, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authored a landmark paper titled ‘The  Israel Lobby’ in 2006. With solid and rigorous reference to fact rather than myth, Walt and Mearsheimer argued: “The Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States have worked together to shape the (US) administration’s policy towards Iraq, Syria and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East…. Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical”.

The Walt-Mearsheimer critique was banished by a vast and orchestrated campaign attacking it as “anti-semitic”; and then the authors of the Iraq fiasco went back to the same old playbook: demonising the leaders of a country seen as adversarial, characterising them as irrational beings unamenable to normal diplomatic practices. Netanyahu has in the course of his annual exertions in the cause of hasbara in the UN, described an incumbent Iranian president as a “madman” and his successor as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

When ISIS cut a swathe through the chaos fomented in the Arab world by western military intervention, Netanyahu stuck to his insistence that Iran was the greater threat. As he put it in his 2015 address to the UN: “Many in our region know that both Iran and ISIS are our common enemies. And when your enemies fight each other, don’t strengthen either one – weaken both”.
ISIS has no clear parentage, except the chaos that followed the US invasion of Iraq. For reasons unfathomed, Israel has been rather complacent about this army of aroused religious warriors in its near neighbourhood.

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