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Netanyahu revels in growing Indian friendship

The fact that India no longer automatically supports every proposed anti-Israel UN resolution is a measure of the improving relationship.

    Mr Netanyahu meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swara when she visited Jerusalem.
    Mr Netanyahu meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swara when she visited Jerusalem. (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)

    Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly prone to calling his foreign trips “historic” and he did not disappoint with his six-day visit to India.

    It wasn’t the first visit by a serving Israeli prime minister to the world’s largest democracy — Ariel Sharon made that particular piece of history in 2003 — but neither was it a routine trip. Few foreign leaders landing in Delhi have been greeted with rapturous crowds and a near-constant personal escort from the host prime minister.

    Israel-India ties have been intensifying, below and above the radar, for at least three decades. It is only since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to office that they have fully emerged into the light.

    The scope of their military deals — including one for SPIKE missiles worth half a billion dollars — and the fact India no longer automatically supports every anti-Israel resolution in the United Nations are both strong measures of the improving relationship.

    It became evident soon after Mr Modi’s election in May 2014. The budding “bromance” between him and Mr Netanyahu has included tweeting each other in their native languages.

    However, the personal friendship with India’s premier serves Mr Netanyahu in a manner that is more important than arms deals or votes at the UN. Since he entered politics in the late 1980s, the Netanyahu doctrine has been that Israel can enjoy strong diplomatic and economic relations with the main world powers even without solving the Israel-Palestine conflict.

    Weariness with one of the oldest regional conflicts in history, wars elsewhere that burn with greater intensity, and Israel’s burgeoning hi-tech sector have all served to create an international environment that favours this doctrine.

    Mr Netanyahu has been helped by the emergence of world leaders in the Modi mould: nationalist, populist, democratic but with a dash of authoritarianism.

    Before becoming India’s prime minister, Mr Modi was ostracised by the international community for his nationalism and anti-Muslim statements. Now firmly in power, he sees in Mr Netanyahu a kindred spirit: a fellow rebel against western diplomatic orthodoxies.

    He is not alone. Other like-minded leaders perceive Israel’s prime minister as a successful insurgent against the global establishment. Donald Trump in the US, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Shinzo Abe in Japan and Rwandan President Paul Kagame are all mavericks whose domestic popularity is in part due to the way they have thumbed their nose at foreign critics. “Bibi loves these meetings with leaders from the Far East,” said one senior Israeli diplomat. “They talk with him about business and security and there’s barely a mention of the Palestinians or settlements, if at all.”

    Only a dwindling group of western European politicians still pester Mr Netanyahu about the non-existent peace process with the Palestinians.

    He looks at them with a patient smile when they insist on what he describes as “going down the Palestinian rabbit-hole”.

    After all, he has Mr Modi to do business with.

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