Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave President Donald Trump an awkward hug last week at a public appearance in Washington. No one knows if Benjamin Netanyahu will get the same treatment when Modi arrives in Jerusalem for a state visit on July 4. But one thing is certain: India’s embrace of Israel is increasingly intimate. It also comes at a price.
Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. India recognized Israel in 1950, but its principled support for Palestinian self-determination and a practical desire to remain on good terms with the Arab world prevented India from establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. The end of the Cold War and the changing landscape of Middle East politics had provided India powerful incentives to change course.
For the past 25 years, India has generally conducted its Israel policy with little fanfare and with careful attention to the sensitivities of Palestinians and their international backers. Under Modi, this has changed. His government has officially delinked India’s relationship with Israel from the question of Palestinian self-determination. India’s ambassador to Israel recently stated that “we can deal with the Palestinians and Israelis separately, on their own merits.”
India continues to support a two-state solution, provides aid to the Palestinian Authority, maintains a diplomatic outpost in Ramallah, and recently hosted Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi. But India no longer automatically votes against Israel at the UN. It frequently hosts delegations of Israeli officials. Unlike every senior Indian political leader to have visited Israel, Modi will not make even a token appearance in the West Bank. More substantively, in a recent statement Modi omitted the standard reference to East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.
Trade and investment between India and Israel are growing in agriculture, information technology, and other sectors. But it is military and intelligence cooperation that are driving the relationship. The official highlight of Modi’s visit will be a series of defense deals. Israel is now India’s number two arms supplier, and India is among Israel’s biggest customers for military equipment. Israeli defense companies are establishing joint ventures to produce small arms in India.
Critics of India’s closer relationship with Israel focus on the potential damage to the Palestinian cause. Treating Israel and Palestine as unrelated matters, they argue, undercuts efforts by European and other countries to pressure Israel into serious peace talks. Some see the effects as even more direct. The Indian writer Prabir Purkayastha has argued that India cannot be a major “buyer of Israeli arms… and claim innocence when charged with helping subsidize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” There is also, allegedly, a cost to India’s reputation in the developing world, whose backing is crucial if India is to gain the permanent seat on the UN Security Council it has long coveted.
Backers of Modi’s Israel policy dismiss these concerns. Even Israel’s enemies, including the Saudis, are working with Netanyahu, they argue. As a former Indian diplomat told me in Tel Aviv in June, “why should India be more Catholic than the Pope on Palestine?” Those of this view see India’s increasingly close relations with Israel as consistent with a general reorientation of its foreign policy – from moral posturing to clear-eyed self-interest.
There is, however, a hidden cost to India’s embrace of Israel – one that undermines India’s democracy at home if not its diplomatic standing abroad. And that is the tendency for closer engagement with Israel to reinforce an increasingly paranoid worldview among Indian leaders, political commentators, and the public at large. Popular discourse increasingly portrays India, a country of 1.2 billion, as sharing Israel’s predicament – a nation under siege, surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbors, plagued by Islamic terrorism, and threatened by a Muslim enemy within. In other words, India is importing not just weapons from Israel, but a political mindset as well.
The Hindu nationalist movement in which Modi has spent his entire adult life explicitly seeks to make India a Hindu nation – one where citizenship is based on religious identity. The movement’s founders in the early 20th century admired the militancy and single-mindedness of Zionism, and sought to emulate it in India. With Modi, they have their best chance of supplanting the inclusive, multicultural India of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru with a pinched nationalist vision in which religious minorities – particularly Muslims – must live on sufferance under an explicitly Hindu state.
In Modi’s India, targeted violence against Muslims occurs with increasing regularity, and with (until last week) little or no condemnation from the ruling party. Dissenting voices are shouted down as “anti-national” by hyperventilating media personalities. Academic freedom is under attack.
None of this was caused by Israel. But political leaders in India who have unleashed these trends receive validation from a belief, nurtured through sustained engagement and identification with Israel, that it was only through similarly ruthless means that Israel achieved the power and self-confidence it enjoys today.
Nowhere is this syndrome more pronounced than in the Modi government’s approach to Kashmir, which critics sometimes call “India’s Palestine.” Once upon a time, when Indian security forces committed atrocities in Muslim-majority Kashmir, they were condemned as behaving like Israeli occupiers – criticism that stung in a country where commitment to Palestinian independence was an article of faith.
Today, ardent supporters of a hard line on Kashmir positively relish comparisons between the Indian and Israeli militaries. Modi himself drew such a parallel last October after launching preemptive military strikes against alleged terrorist safe havens in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. Earlier this year, when an Indian army officer strapped a Kashmiri civilian onto a jeep as a “human shield,” defenders of this heinous act justified it by claiming the tactic was pioneered by the Israeli military. The truth of this claim is less pertinent than the legitimacy it intended to confer.
In April of this year, a retired Indian air vice-marshal called for India to replicate the Israeli model of total social mobilization against terrorism. Such an approach feeds, and feeds on, the fear psychosis that is shrinking the political center in both countries – and diminishing the scope for peaceful conflict-resolution in either.
How profoundly India’s public narrative on Israel’s occupation has shifted was in evidence in mid-June, when youthful political activists in a south Indian town sought to show solidarity with besieged Palestinians by putting up signs renaming one of its streets after Gaza. Hindu nationalist leaders and sections of India’s media exploded with outrage – calling the town an ISIS lair. An official in India’s Intelligence Bureau considered this act of consciousness-raising part of a strategy to radicalize the region’s sizable Muslim population.
Oxford political theorist Faisal Devji has argued that Pakistan was established on principles similar to those that animated Israel’s founding. He called Pakistan, provocatively, “Muslim Zion.” When Modi visits Jerusalem, will he – no matter how inapt the parallel – be dreaming of “Hindu Zion”? If so, it will not be based on the moderate form of Zionism espoused by progressive Israelis, such as playwright Joshua Sobol, who advocate recognition of a Palestinian state and equal rights for all Israelis. It will be the uncompromising, militant Zionism embodied by the man Modi may or may not hug – Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader whose success at manipulating people’s insecurity is a model India’s Hindu nationalists find more irresistible the more they get to know it.
Rob Jenkins, a professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author, most recently, of Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (Oxford University Press, 2017).