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Mainstream, VOL LV No 33 New Delhi August 5, 2017

Indo-Israel Strategic Relations within the framework of Hindutva Philosophy

Saturday 5 August 2017

by Arun Srivastava

Two remarks by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are yet to make any significant sense: First, the marriage between Israel and India was made in heaven. Benjamin did not elaborate the nature of the marriage, which is the male partner, and whether it could be consummated. His second remark was more hilarious but important. Exhilarated to have Narendra Modi amidst his people, Netanyahu said; “We’ve waited for you 70 years.”

Undoubtedly Modi has been the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. But it was certainly not of such a magnitude for Netanyahu to come out with these remarks. It implied more than what meets the eye. Usually a Prime Minister’s visit is not the guarantee to have strong bilateral relations between the two countries. But in case of Israel the nuance was quite different.

Netanyahu, the second longest serving Israeli Prime Minister after David Ben-Gurion, is a Right-wing hardliner. He built his political career by portraying Palestinians as an existential threat to the Jewish state of Israel. He has thrived on playing the politics of fear and demonising Muslims. Modi too has been pursuing far-Right politics in India.

His nursing of anti-Muslim views has been an open secret. From refusing to wear the skullcap to denying ticket of his party to even a single Muslim in the UP elections—these are some of the glaring examples. While the Muslims were being lynched on the plea of carrying and eating beef, he had been maintaining a reflexive silence. He cautioned criminals but did not warn his saffron friends. The increasing tempo of attacks and lynchings shows the Prime Minister’s inadequate response to rising communalism. What could be a better exposure than befriending Israel for the BJP to show the way to suppress minorities and all those who do not accept the diktats of the NDA?

Netanyahu was obviously thrilled on receiving an Indian Prime Minister who is the champion of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra. Though India had fraternal relations with Israel, the intensity of the love and concern for each other could be gauged from the simple fact that Modi agreed to elevate India’s relationship with Israel to one of “strategic partnership” after negotiations and last-minute changes in the joint statement.

India and Israel have never before referred to each other as “strategic partners”. India has strategic relations with only a handful of countries. The nomenclature emerged in a post-Cold War world when India tried to diversify its partnerships. France in 1998 and Russia in 2000 were its earliest strategic partners. The US, the UK, Japan and Australia are among the country’s major strategic partners of late.

The idea, officials from both sides suggested, was to broaden and deepen India-Israel ties so much so that unravelling the partnership becomes difficult for future governments in either country. The two leaders had made clear, they said, that they wanted to insulate the relationship from any future upheavals in the Middle East.

Interestingly, Netanyahu had referred to the bilateral relationship as “I square T square”— Israeli technology and Indian talent. Modi was more candid. Modi told the Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin: “It means ‘India for Israel’.” They agreed, in a joint statement, to not only condemn terrorism in “all forms and manifes-tations” but to take strong measures against “those who encourage, support and finance terrorism, or provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups”.

Netanyahu made it explicitly known to the world that he felt happy only with Modi. One thing is certain: that Benjamin was trying to convey his and his countrymen’s feeling towards saffron India. Modi, ignoring the basic tenet to say even hello to Palestine, while on visit to Israel, has embedded the feeling in the Israeli people that Hindu India was closer to them than any other country.

It is a known fact Hindu nationalists in India admire Israel for domination on its Muslim neighbour. They also dream of turning India into an aggressive state like Israel. The Sangh’s passion for Israel is almost legendary. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, had hailed the creation of Israel as a “joyous” moment. He had even publicly clashed with Mahatma Gandhi and other nationalist leaders for opposing the forced displacement of Palestinians to carve out a Jewish homeland.

True enough it would have been a major surprise if Modi, who had a widely publicised meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in New York sometime back, had not emphasised to “deepen and develop” closer relations with Israel. And to achieve the mission it was quite necessary and essential that he diluted the principled stand on the Palestinians’ right to an independent statehood. The previous Indian governments, which supported the cause of Palestine, had achieved a strong defence, intelligence and security relationship with Israel. The relations blossomed even when both the countries did not have full diplomatic relations. Obviously in this backdrop Modi skipping the Palestine question needs to be understood in the proper perspective.

The Prime Minister is free to enter into relationship with any country he likes. Look at the way he brought India closer to America even at the peril of risking the defence needs of the country! In spite of serious protests and even objections from the defence experts, he has made India virtually an ally of America. In its quest to have strong relations the government preferred to ignore the anti-India rhetoric and remarks of the US President, Donald Trump. In fact 2017 has already become a record year of Israeli weapons sales to India.

It is worth mentioning that at a time when Netanyahu is facing growing isolation inter-nationally and even its traditional patrons have started to lose patience, he desperately needed India on his side. It is Israel that is looking for new international partners now that it is under pressure. Benjamin’s agony also got its manifes-tation in his two remarks.

The more Netanyahu tried to wrap up things, the more those got exposed. His euphoria was evidently much in the form of coming together of anti-Muslim countries and forces. No doubt that Israel in order to give a concrete shape to its new-found relations would do its best to help India. The government can expect to get Mossad help in fighting terrorists. Israeli tenacity ought to be appreciated. A report carried by the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, underlines the inhumanity, illegality and difficulty in the Israeli attempt to convert Jerusalem, the eastern half of which was captured by Israel in 1967, into a homogeneous Jewish city.

Paradoxically, Modi, who was the first Indian leader to give Palestine a miss while visiting the area, refrained from saying that India would recognise Jerusalem as an exclusively Israeli or Jewish city, for centuries sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is significant that the momentum for Palestinian campaign for statehood has gained in recent weeks. Several European states, including Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, have already recognised Palestine as a state. But the question arises: amid all this, where is India, one of the Palestinians’ oldest friends? Unfortunately, the Indian Parliament failed even to adopt a resolution against Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza to punish Hamas for its admittedly short-sighted and foolish strategy of firing missiles at Israel.

There is a mood change even in America. With the Palestinian campaign’s growing momentum and the diminishing clout of Israel, around 138 countries voted to give Palestine the enhanced status of a “non-member observer state” at the UN General Assembly in 2012. Even Britain chose to abstain rather than vote with Israel.

In April 2016, India joined 32 other countries on the UNESCO General Board to condemn Israel for its excavation and exclusion policies around the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Al-Haram Al-Sharif area, much to the anger of the Israeli Government. But when a similar resolution was put to vote on October 18, the Indian delegate abstained. Obviously by this time the Modi Government had made up its mind.

India’s change of stand on a resolution that called out Israel for its violations of the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and a raft of other treaties is bizarre. But this is the reality. The Modi Govern-ment has changed the track to bring about consolidation of the anti-Muslim forces. Reports indicate that the BJP-RSS-VHP supporters, especially in America and the UK, have been clamouring for a Zionist-Hindu alliance and are striving hard to develop it.

Their argument is: India should recognise that Israel is a Hindu-friendly nation. Common to both Hindutva and Zionism is the belief that true democracy is majoritarian and must protect Hindus/Hinduism and Jews/Judaism. The most weird argument has been that India and Israel must not confer full citizenship rights to other ethnic/religious groupings such as Muslims and Christians in India or to the Palestinians or “Israeli Arabs” as they are called in Israel.

Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, twice referred to his trip as “path-breaking”, and called his unprecedented flight into a country, which New Delhi considered a pariah till 25 years back, a “singular honour”. The Israeli euphoria could be understood from the fact that they described Modi’s approach and action as tearing down of the “final walls” dividing India and Israel. His full-throated public embrace of the relationship underlined a complete shift in India’s West Asia policy that began in 1992. With four bear hugs, personal references and an unconcealed thrill, Modi and Netanyahu praised each other and their nations.

In Israel Modi identified himself more as an ideological friend of Benjamin than merely performing the role of the Indian Prime Minister. Modi took another theatrical step towards dismantling India’s complicated legacy with Israel. He agreed to Netanyahu’s on-the-spot proposal to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, considered the founding father of Zionism. India had voted in 1975 to declare Zionism “racism” at the UN Security Council.. Modi’s visit to Herzl’s tomb amounted to a formal endorsement of Zionism. Modi provided a visibility to the relationship that Israel has long sought. Apart from September 2014, Modi and Netanyahu also met in Paris in December 2015 on the margins of the climate change conference there. The two leaders are known to have spoken on the telephone on multiple occasions.

Historically, India framed its relationship with Israel based on a priority accorded to Palestine. In 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru informed the Zionist emissary, Immanuel Olsvanger, that he could not tolerate imperialism in India or Palestine. P.R. Kumaraswamy, Professor of West Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes that while anti-colonialism was an important aspect of India backing Palestine, supporting Palestine was also a method of leveraging India’s interests in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, there is markedly more visible warmth between the two countries since 2014, once Modi became the Prime Minister. It is worth mentioning that for the first time a senior Indian Minister, L.K. Advani, had visited Israel in the year 2000, when the BJP was in power. Israel had been sending its Presidents and Prime Ministers to India since 1993. The Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, visited India in November 2016.

India and Israel view each other as victims of Islamist terror which matches Modi’s Hindutva background. India having strategic relationship with Israel is the culmination of a long-held dream of the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS. For the RSS, Israel is much more than just another nation. Israel is everything that the RSS wants India to be.

It all started with RSS chief M.S. Gowalkar’s support for the creation of Israel at a time when the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had outright rejected the appeal from Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein seeking support for Jews and the creation of Israel. All these pracharaks believe that Israel is the antithesis to global Islam or international Islamic brotherhood. Bhaurao Deoras continued his engagements with Jews with roots in Mumbai, Kerala and other parts of the country, and pressed the idea of bridging with Israel. In late 1991, he along with the then Leader of the Opposition, L.K. Advani, met the then PM, Narasimha Rao, and pushed for diplomatic relations with Israel.

Nevertheless, this visit has boosted Israel’s defence trade with India. This is the largest area of cooperation. Israel’s defence industry bagged its biggest security contract in April 2017 with the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries being awarded contracts worth $ 2 billion for providing medium range surface-to-air missile systems to the Indian Army. It is no secret that India is currently the biggest importer of arms in the world while Israel is its second largest foreign supplier.

Israel is now the second largest supplier of military equipment to India (after Russia, which might well be permanently overtaken in due course by both Israel and the US) and India is now Israel’s biggest arms purchaser. In New Delhi, Israel is seen as a key conduit for influencing the US Government which, while seeking to consolidate its strategic partnership with India, also—to the irritation of India— feels the need to sustain its strategic ties with Pakistan.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52[at]gmail.com

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