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


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. Part explanation may be available from Efraim Inbar, an Israeli security analyst who for long headed that vacant symbol of reconciliation: the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Affairs (BESA).

In a paper written last October, Inbar argued that the destruction of ISIS would be a serious “strategic mistake,” since an ISIS that was active in propagating the “caliphate” would bring discredit to the notion while attracting disgruntled terror-prone individuals from the west to its flag. There were simultaneously with the ideological purpose, a tactical police purpose achieved, of tracking radical elements in the west and preventing their mischief.

The best strategy for Israel then was “the further weakening” but not the “destruction” of ISIS. An ISIS reduced but not eliminated would undermine its cause among “radical Muslims”, while locking up “bad actors” in fierce internecine warfare, which would leave them little room to target the west. The biggest bonus of the whole strategy of course, was that it would also “hamper Iran’s quest for regional hegemony”.

A more recent contribution to the BESA dialogue speaks of the many reasons it is absolutely essential for Israeli interests to keep the Syrian civil war on an indefinite boil. Amid growing apprehensions within Israel’s strategic establishment that the six-year long conflict may destabilise the entire neighbourhood, Inbar wrote: “Common sense tells us that weak enemies are preferable because they can do less damage. Violent conflict is about exacting pain from the other side. States are more dangerous than militias and terrorist groups. A weak Syria can cause less pain than a strong Syria”. It made sense to let the chaos continue, since a “dysfunctional Syrian state torn by civil war is not a result of Israeli machinations, but a positive strategic development from an Israeli point of view”.

Nobody can tell what substantive influence these reflections exerted on Israeli policy. It is sufficient to know that Israel’s obsessive pursuit of its Biblical fantasies involves fomenting a state of chaos in its near neighbourhood and perhaps even beyond.

Modi’s visit is a historic event for the Israeli military-security industry complex that lurks behind these partly revealed acts of sabotage against neighbourhood nations and an actual catalogue of atrocities on the Palestinians. It sends out a message to the world, that India is now eager to be seen in public embrace of a state that celebrates not just colonial occupation and oppression but also the regular use of violence in contravention of international law against civilians.

Humanitarian crisis

Does the absence of a Palestinian point of contact in this entire three-day visit represent a serious affront? Perhaps not. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, by all accounts went back quite happy after he was received in Delhi on a short visit that was high on ceremony but short on substance. Since going back, he has green-flagged Israel in the brutal tightening of the siege of Gaza by declining to pay the electricity bill for the narrow strip’s teeming population of two million from Palestinian Authority resources. The electricity cut, as some observers point out, has escalated Gaza’s humanitarian crisis to possibly a “point of no return”.

The broader civil war within the Arab world, eagerly promoted as part of Israeli strategic ambitions, has clearly impinged deeply on the politics of the Palestinian struggle.

The abject and unfortunate Abbas derived little benefit from his betrayal of Gaza. Israel has just announced one of the largest expansions of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, dwarfing all the land-thefts done over a half-century of occupation.

Following an armed encounter between militants and occupying forces in the old city of Jerusalem on June 19, Israel tightened its blockade of the West Bank, immediately revoking permits for Palestinians to travel into Israel to visit relatives during the Ramzan month of prayer and fasting. In a Facebook post, Major General Yoav Mordecai, who bears the title of “Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories” in the Israel Defence Force (IDF) directly put the blame on Abbas’s political faction Fatah: “Three bastards who undertook this cowardly terror attack received praise from Fatah who falsely claimed they were innocent. This is incitement to terror”.

The venomous rhetoric against Palestinians, always part of the mainstream discourse in Israel, has long been recognised as expression of deeply embedded racism. To cite a similar locution from a time when the pretence of a peace process was still being sustained, Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaalon, then the chief of staff of the IDF, spoke in 2003 of the Palestinians as an existential threat to Israel, like a cancer requiring chemotherapy.

The “demographic problem” is what it is called in Israeli political discourse, an almost obsessive concern since the Zionist state was founded. Israeli strategy was typically framed around the necessity of large-scale population transfers (otherwise known as “ethnic cleansing”) to firmly establish the Jewish identity of the land. When that proved impractical, unilateral separation was dreamed up. In the spaces between these two, a “two-state solution” has occasionally been conceded as a possibility, always in a manner to be determined at Israel’s discretion. David Bar-Illan, an adviser to Netanyahu in 2008 summed it up: Israel would choose what to give the Palestinians. They could call it a state or even “fried chicken”.

The peace that Israel has to offer Palestine is basically a choice between apartheid regimes of varying severities.

Substantively, India’s relationship with Israel has been conducted under the shroud of national security, immune to public scrutiny and accountability. Credible stories have appeared in the Indian media that India has been shopping for surveillance systems to be deployed along its most sensitive borders, which would link into automatically triggered guns to stop any breaches. This would be similar to the weapon systems deployed by Israel along the apartheid wall that snakes through much of the West Bank, which kill indiscriminately, not sparing children who stray out of the  narrow confines in which they are confined by  the Israeli occupation.

The real danger of India’s burgeoning relationship with Israel is that Israeli equipment perhaps comes bundled with its doctrines and are designed for use against an occupied people and neighbours whose territorial integrity Israel has repeatedly violated with absolute impunity. These are a world removed from India’s security challenges and could end up compromising its interests.

Sukumar Muralidharan is a senior journalist and currently teaches journalism at O.P. Jindal Global University.

The article appeared in The Wire on