It wasn’t exactly “From Here to Eternity,” but the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, up to their shins in the Mediterranean surf and discussing desalination, says a lot about the budding romance between the two Asian democracies.
Modi, in Israel last week, was received by Israelis with the warmth of a beloved visiting relative and with a palpable ease that Netanyahu doesn’t share with his American or European allies. It’s a summer reverie: First, India is an increasingly wealthy nation of a billion-plus consumers for Israeli high tech. The trade relationship is now worth more than $4 billion annually and, by most assessments, can only go up. Second, Modi is a Hindu nationalist with little sympathy for his Muslim countrymen — who doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned with the complaints of the Palestinians. Reverie, indeed: A rare international visitor with no external issues to ruffle Netanyahu’s fractious coalition government.
Netanyahu has much to gain from a pivot to India. Gone would be the headache-inducing drumbeat against settlements from the United States and Europe, and with it the many-headed threat of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. And, of course, the bothersome care and feeding of the American Jewish community — helpful as long as it knows its place — would no longer be an ongoing distraction. As a matter of fact, when viewed in the glow of a growing movement toward Modi and India, Netanyahu’s recent decision to shelve an agreement for state sponsorship of a pluralistic prayer space near the Western Wall — a top priority for the American Jewish establishment — is no big deal. Almost no one in Israel is clamoring for it — certainly not Netanyahu’s coalition partners — and India could care less.
The same holds true for the new law seeking to place sole authority for conversions in the hands of the coalition-sponsored haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Most Israelis don’t get exercised about that, either, in part because they already treat the rabbinate as a necessary evil that they largely ignore. But the Modi government doesn’t care about that issue or any of the “personal status” issues that factor so heavily into dealings with Israel’s Diaspora cousins.
So why not cultivate stronger ties with meaningful trading partners and supporters who stay out of nasty internal politics and who have no views on the bona fides of the Jewish state, Jewish peoplehood or Jewish continuity? It’s almost like a summer vacation, without your bothersome and judgmental aunt and uncle.
But what drove the shift? Has America’s withdrawal from world affairs contributed to the Israeli pivot toward the east? As U.S. influence and prestige diminish on the international stage, should we be surprised to see our allies looking for other support and encouragement? If that’s the case, the brewing bromance of Netanyahu and Modi may be just the beginning.