Birds of a feather

Print edition : February 16, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on their arrival at Palam Air Force Station in New Delhi on January 14. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Ahed Tamimi, a prominent teenaged Palestinian campaigner against Israel's occupation, at a military court in the Israeli-run Ofer prison in the West Bank village of Betunia on December 25, 2017. Israel's army arrested her on December 19 for slapping Israeli soldiers who had stationed themselves in her family home in the village of Nabi Salah in the occupied West Bank. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

Netanyahu writing in the visitor's book at the Gandhi ashram in Ahmedabad on January 17 while his wife and Modi look on. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit has shown that nothing gets in the way of the thriving relationship between India and Israel, and Netanyahu and Modi, not even Israel’s actions in the occupied territories and Syria.

WHENEVER the Bharatiya Janata Party is returned to power at the Centre, one of the first things the government does is invite the Prime Minister of Israel to visit India. The party is never bothered by that country’s politics or the record in office of its Prime Minister. It was during the term of the first National Democratic Alliance government, presided over by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that the notorious Ariel Sharon, who was Prime Minister at the time, was given the red-carpet treatment in New Delhi. Sharon was among those prominent Zionists who have a lot of innocent Palestinian blood on their hands. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not far behind on that score. Among other war crimes, Netanyahu is responsible for the 2014 war on Gaza during which hundreds of children were killed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like United States President Donald Trump, does not view the right-wing Zionist project in West Asia as a colonial enterprise. The creation of the state of Israel displaced millions of Palestinians from their homeland. Netanyahu’s stated goal is the creation of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel) with its borders extending from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

When the Israeli Prime Minister arrived in New Delhi on January 14, he was accorded the kind of welcome the current Indian Prime Minister usually reserves for visiting U.S. Presidents. Modi broke with protocol and personally welcomed his Israeli counterpart at the airport, receiving him with the trademark hug he reserves for his special friends. Netanyahu described Modi as “a revolutionary leader in the true sense of the term” for elevating bilateral ties to unprecedented levels. He said that Israel-India relations were “a marriage made in heaven”. He had used the same phraseology when Modi was in Israel last year. The good travelling salesman that he is, Netanyahu has used similar words to describe the close relationship between Israel and China. Modi personally accompanied Netanyahu for a substantial part of his six-day visit.

Netanyahu was, of course, looking forward to his India visit, battered as he was at home. There have been demonstrations almost every day in the capital, Tel Aviv, for the past several weeks demanding his resignation. Banners with words describing Netanyahu as the “Crime Minister of Israel” and demanding that he resign were prominently displayed at the demonstrations. Salacious details of alleged acts of corruption have been leaking out. One of his sons was caught on tape, while partying in a strip club, boasting about the favours his dad had given a crony capitalist friend. Netanyahu is facing charges in connection with the illegal receipt of gifts, negotiating deals with a newspaper baron in return for favourable coverage and a corruption scandal relating to the purchase of submarines from Germany.

According to reports in the Israeli media, it is only a matter of time before the police summon Netanyahu for interrogation. One of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, was found guilty of corruption and had to spend time in prison. Sharon was on the verge of being sent to jail but his long hospitalisation after suffering a stroke and eventual death saved him from that fate. The demand for Netanyahu to resign is getting louder by the day in Israel. His domestic critics, whose numbers are growing, say that an Israeli Prime Minister who is accused of serious acts of corruption has no right to continue in office. They also point out that in a short while Netanyahu will have to spend a lot of time answering questions from police investigators and will have very little time to look after the affairs of the state.

Before coming to India, Netanyahu achieved the main goal in his career, that of scuppering the Oslo peace accords and getting official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As Netanyahu was being hosted by the Indian government, Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the peace process was dead. Abbas said that Israel had “killed” the Oslo agreement. “Now we are an authority without any authority, and an occupation without land. We will not accept this,” Abbas declared in a speech delivered at a special meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council. The Israeli government also passed a Bill in the parliament that makes it impossible for the P.A. to make East Jerusalem its capital. After the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem, the Israeli government has been speeding up plans to annexe the settlements it has constructed on the occupied territories and to extend Israeli law to the West Bank. According to Abbas, the main goal of the Israeli government “is the consolidation of an apartheid regime in all of historic Palestine”.

During the Netanyahu visit, India gave the impression that it was apologetic about its vote in the United Nations General Assembly siding with the Palestinians against the U.S’ recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Israeli officials magnanimously said that they understood India’s “compulsions” in voting along with the rest of the international community. All the same, India’s vote on Jerusalem was on the agenda for discussion during the visit, and a joint statement called for the “early resumption of peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians. There was no direct reference in the statement to the “two-state” solution, which the Palestinians and the international community are committed to. Instead, the major emphasis was on the “grave threat” terrorism posed to both countries. The release of the India-Israel joint statement coincided with Abbas’ declaration that the U.S’ recognition of Jerusalem was “a slap on the face of the Palestinians”. The P.A. President has made it clear that meaningful talks with Israel can only resume after the decision on Jerusalem is rescinded. The Palestinian side has also made it clear that it no longer wants U.S. involvement in the peace process.

BDS movement

In early January, the Israeli government announced the banning of 20 organisations active in the worldwide Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS—which has the support of people such as Stephen Hawking and other leading scientists, academics and artists—has been active in convincing governments, businesses, entertainers and others from doing business with or going to Israel as long as the occupation continues and the policies replicated from the apartheid era are encouraged. The organisations that were banned are from the U.S., Europe and Africa. Even a peace group in the U.S. known as the “Jewish Voice for Peace” was banned. A citizen of Malawi representing the World Council of Churches was sent back from Tel Aviv as his name figured on the blacklist. The BDS movement has not gained momentum in India.

At a time when Hollywood A-listers are avoiding projects in Israel, the government there is seriously wooing Indian film-makers. A few Indian films with big names are now being shot in Israel even though neighbouring Jordan has better scenic locations to offer and is cheaper to shoot in. Bollywood actors such as the venerable Amitabh Bachchan were seen posing with Netanyahu during his visit to Mumbai.

The Netanyahu government’s treatment of the Palestinian teenaged girl Ahed Tamimi has outraged the international community. She has been languishing in an Israeli jail for slapping two Israeli soldiers who had stationed themselves in her family home in the village of Nabi Salah in the occupied West Bank. The best land and the water resources in their village have been taken over by Jewish settlers. Her mother too has been arrested for filming the incident. Ahed Tamimi’s immediate motivation for slapping the soldiers was the serious injury sustained by one of her cousins after Israeli soldiers shot her in the face. Since the beginning of the year, Israeli soldiers have killed two Palestinian children in the occupied territories. Over the past 16 years, Israeli soldiers have killed an average of 16 Palestinian children a month.

As he was preparing for his trip to India, Netanyahu was busy ordering air strikes against Syria as the groups Israel supported were being pushed out of their last enclaves. Israel has hit Syria more than a hundred times since the war began in 2011. The Syrian Army, preoccupied as it is with mopping up the remnants of rebel groups, is biding its time before it responds to the spate of Israeli air strikes. All these actions of the Netanyahu government, including its calls to isolate Iran, have had no impact on bilateral relations with India, which Israeli officials have described as an “all-weather friendship”. Bilateral trade between Israel and India rose from $200 million in 1992, the year the two countries established full diplomatic ties, to $4.6 billion in 2016. Israel has emerged as one of India’s top weapons suppliers, selling more than a billion dollars worth of armaments annually for many years now.

In the early days, Israel was keen to show off its proficiency in agriculture as a means of impressing the Indian political class. The brief U.S. sanctions on India following the 1998 nuclear tests and the Kargil military standoff with Pakistan in 1999 gave Israeli armaments manufacturers unprecedented entry into the lucrative Indian arms bazaar. Now Israel advertises its smart city algorithms, facial recognition software, drones, robotics, surveillance applications and data-mining programmes for the Indian market. These programmes were developed by Israel’s military-industrial complex, which has been making money hand over fist through multibillion-dollar deals with countries like India.

Access to ‘big data’

During the visit, the Indian government announced its decision to give Israeli firms access to the country’s “big data”. Indian officials have refused to indicate whether Aadhaar-based data will also be shared with Israel. The Indian government is claiming that data relating to Indian citizens will be used only to increase agricultural productivity.

Israel has been using the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as laboratories for its offensive weapons. Israel’s counter-insurgency tactics have been replicated in India and other countries with the help of Israeli advisers. In the bilateral talks held in New Delhi, the Israeli side expressed its keenness to make more investments in India’s defence sector. The joint statement said that Israeli companies were ready to enter into joint ventures with their Indian counterparts in the defence sector under the “Make in India” initiative. Under the “Make in India” programme, foreign companies are expected to invest at least 30 per cent of the contract value into the Indian defence industry. Both the sides have refused to divulge the specifics of their new military cooperation. According to reports in the Israeli media, the countries are jointly developing a medium-range surface-to-air missile at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.

India has completed the deployment of Israeli “Spyder” anti-aircraft missiles on its western borders. The Indian Navy is planning to purchase the short-range surface-to-air missile for $1.5 billion. Before Netanyahu’s arrival, the Indian government had cancelled the $500 million “Spike” anti-tank missile deal with Israel. There are reports that the Indian government is reconsidering that decision. Netanyahu had publicly aired the hope of the decision being reviewed during his India visit. Interestingly, the Indian government does not have much objection to Israel selling its advanced weaponry to China.