Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process
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AnalysisIn 1947, India opposed the establishment of Israel; today, not even the sky can limit soaring relations

Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process

During 3 jam-packed days in Israel, the leader of the world's second-largest Muslim population did not mention the two-state solution even once

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in a helicopter ride over Haifa, Jull 6, 2017 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in a helicopter ride over Haifa, Jull 6, 2017 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

There can be no doubt that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Israel this week was a major success. The first-ever visit from the leader of the country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population, which just a few decades ago insisted that its passports are “valid for any country except Israel,” underlined how things have changed.

The three-day visit was brimful with grand gestures — including plenty of Modi’s trademark hugs — and mutual declarations of love and admiration. Modi’s jam-packed itinerary comprised political talks with the government and the leader of the opposition, and secret talks on improving counter-terrorism coordination. There was an emotional meeting with an 11-year-old Jewish boy who lost his parents in the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. Modi addressed a Bollywood-infused concert/rally for Israelis with Indian roots. And after paying his respect to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, he spontaneously visited the nearby grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl.

A floricultural center named a flower after him, and he took a stroll with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the beach. The photos of the two leaders, their bare feet in the water as they chatted about Israeli desalination techniques, will go down in history as one of the most iconic images to come out of Israel since Netanyahu and Barack Obama took off their suit jackets at Ben Gurion Airport in March 2013.

On the economic front, too, the visit will have an impressive lasting impact. Israel and India established a $40 million Industrial R&D and Innovation Fund, and individual companies from both nations signed deals worth millions. Jerusalem and Delhi signed seven bilateral agreements, covering technology, agriculture, water and even space research. “We already agreed that the sky is not the limit because we’re doing it in space, but I think that the talents that we have in India and Israel are amazing and the possibilities are amazing,” Netanyahu said Thursday at the launch of the Israel-India CEOs’ Forum.

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Modi formally invited Netanyahu to visit India, something the Israeli leader had dreamed about for years.

But amid all the compliments paid and deals struck, perhaps most striking about Modi’s historic visit were the things that weren’t mentioned. Iran — a close Indian ally — for example. The Islamic Republic’s ongoing destabilizing actions in the region and continuous calls for Israel’s destruction were not raised, or at least not publicly.

In meetings with world leaders, even those with good relations to Tehran, Netanyahu usually doesn’t shy away from talking about Iran. Last December in Astana, for instance, he asked Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to send a message to Tehran. “Ask … why Iran continues to threaten us with annihilation. Don’t you understand: we’re not a rabbit. We’re a tiger,” he said.

Hosting Modi, Netanyahu refrained from belligerent statements directed at Tehran, despite the fact that Iranian terrorists were responsible for a 2012 terror attack in New Delhi, during which an Israeli was wounded. India never made any arrests in this case.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, speaks with media during a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Monday, May 23, 2016. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, speaks with media during a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Monday, May 23, 2016. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

More importantly, the Palestinian issue was entirely absent from Modi’s visit. The Indian leader’s intention to separate Delhi’s friendship to Israel from its support for the Palestinians was evident once it emerged that Modi would visit Israel but skip the Palestinian Authority. But it was even more remarkable that in several speeches Modi made in Israel, he never cited the issue.

In a two-page joint statement the governments of Israel and India released Wednesday, the two leaders dedicated but one of 22 paragraphs to their discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “They underlined the need for the establishment of a just and durable peace in the region,” the declaration read. “They reaffirmed their support for an early negotiated solution between the sides based on mutual recognition and security arrangements.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Narendra Modi in a water purification buggy on Olga Beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Narendra Modi in a water purification buggy on Olga Beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The premier of India — a state which in 1947 opposed the UN Partition Plan and, 65 years later, supported granting the “State of Palestine” nonmember state status at the UN General Assembly — did not endorse Palestinian statehood once during his time here. He did not mention the two-state solution or the principle of two states for two peoples.

By way of contrast, Australia — arguably the most pro-Israel country in the world today — explicitly “affirmed its support for a two-state solution” when Netanyahu visited Down Under in February. (That trip occurred after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when the Israeli prime minister had already started avoiding this terminology.)

India, of course, still supports the Palestinian cause. The excellent personal relationship between Netanyahu and Modi notwithstanding, New Delhi refuses to promise to dramatically change its voting pattern at international organizations in Jerusalem’s favor. “We will vote on a resolution based on its merit and not based on friendship,” India’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Pavan Kapoor, told The Times of Israel a few days before Modi arrived.

That a successful visit full of friendly gestures does not necessarily change a country’s long-entrenched views on Israel/Palestine became obvious this week, when Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan — Muslim-majority countries Netanyahu visited seven months ago — voted in favor of a UNESCO resolution denying Israeli claims to the Old City of Jerusalem.

“My hope is,” Netanyahu told Ukrainian President Nazarbayev in mid-December, “that the great partnership that we are building here will also be reflected in international forums like the UN. That’s beginning to happen.”

It obviously hasn’t happened yet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in a car with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in a car with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

And yet, Modi’s three-day trip, which included a helicopter ride to Haifa during which Netanyahu showed him “Israel’s narrow waist and explained the area to him,” according to his aides, undoubtedly enhanced the Indian leader’s understanding of and sympathy for the Jewish state.

The fact that he entirely detached his principled support for the Palestinians from his desire to strengthen ties with Jerusalem cannot be seen as anything but a total success for Netanyahu. It marks a certain vindication, too, of his theory that it is possible to strengthen Israel’s foreign relations even in the absence of progress in the peace process.

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