Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu seemed like old friends reunited after years apart, greeting each other with a bear hug on the airport tarmac, joking about yoga during a private dinner at the Israeli prime minister's residence. But in fact it was the first time that Modi, or any Indian leader, had ever touched down on Israeli soil, an historic visit that culminated a major foreign policy reversal by the world's largest democracy.
In 1947, Zionist leaders convinced Albert Einstein to write a letter to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, asking him to support the creation of a Jewish state. His response was blunt. "Palestine is essentially an Arab country," Nehru wrote back, "and must remain so."
Nehru would recognise Israel three years later, but the relationship stayed distant for decades. India, after all, was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc that often sided with the Palestinians. Even after they established formal diplomatic relations in 1992, Indian prime ministers were reluctant to publicly embrace Israel, in part to avoid angering their country's sizable Muslim minority.
Modi, who took office in 2014, has shown no such hesitation. "It’s my singular honour to be the first ever prime minister of India to undertake this groundbreaking visit to Israel," he said on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion airport, where he promised to build a "strong and resilient partnership with Israel."
He has a busy schedule during his three days in Israel. He will visit high-tech farms and desalination plants, meet with local CEOs, even ride a helicopter up to Haifa to pay his respects at the graves of Indian soldiers in a World War I cemetery. One thing is noticeably absent, though: a stop in the occupied West Bank to meet with the Palestinian leadership. Indian diplomats point out that Modi met with Mahmoud Abbas just six weeks ago, in New Delhi. Still, the omission was unusual for a visiting foreign leader, and the Israelis have taken note.
"What the Indians have done is to a large extent what Israel does: it has de-hyphenated the relationship with Israel from anyone else," said Mark Sofer, the deputy director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry.
In a sense, Netanyahu and Modi are natural partners: a Jewish nationalist and a Hindu nationalist. Beyond the personal relationship, though, Israel hopes it can offer India substantive reasons to deepen their alliance. It is a world leader, for example, in desalination and drip irrigation, technologies that would be of great use in a populous state that suffers from chronic droughts. Israeli firms are already working on major water projects across the country, from Gujarat to Chennai.
Israel's fast-growing arms industry has also become a major supplier for India—its third-largest, in fact, after only Russia and the United States. The two countries have already signed more than $2 billion in arms deals this year, with more expected during Modi's visit. The Indian army is eager to deploy more Israeli-made drones and missile defence systems. After 50 years of occupation, the Palestinians cannot hope to compete, with an aid-dependent economy that produces little of value to the outside world.
The newfound alliance with India is a microcosm of a broader realignment in Jerusalem's foreign policy. Over the past few years, Israeli diplomats have worked hard to forge new relationships in Africa and Asia. To some extent this is natural, an effort to reach out to rising powers and emerging economies.But it is also a deliberate policy of hedging—of looking south and east, at a time when its relationships to the west are getting complicated.
Israel is losing support in the United States and Europe because of its policies toward the Palestinians and the populist nationalism of its right-wing government. A growing swathe of the Israeli population now sees their traditional allies as hostile. "Many Israelis say, let’s give up Europe, there’s no future for us in Europe. I don’t hold that opinion, but it’s a growing sentiment," said Naftali Bennett, the hawkish education minister. Diplomats from Africa and Asia, unlike their Western counterparts, tend to evince little interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the makeup of Israel's ruling coalition.
At a press briefing this week, one Indian journalist asked whether his country could play a role in mediating Israeli-Palestinian talks. Daniel Carmon, the Israeli ambassador to New Delhi, dismissed the idea by drawing a parallel with India's own conflicts with neighboring Pakistan. "Israel prefers to have its peace process, or political process, with its neighbor to be a bilateral one, and I think saying that to an Indian audience would be very much understood," he said, to nods from many in the audience.
Indeed, Israeli officials have been cheered by India's newfound ambivalence at the United Nations. It was once a reliable "yes" vote for pro-Palestinian measures. Since Modi took office, however, India has repeatedly abstained from resolutions that criticised Israel's policies in Jerusalem or its alleged war crimes in Gaza.
This realignment has its limits, though. Israel's new allies cannot offer the sort of military aid it gets from the United States, which sends $3 billion per year, or Germany, which has subsidised Israel's fleet of nuclear-capable submarines. Among them, only China currently wields a veto at the Security Council, and it does not use that power to defend Israel. And if African and Asian states are not eager to get involved in the "peace process," it will remain a Western-led initiative, and a constant source of tension.
In December, the Security Council voted unanimously to condemn Israeli settlements, declaring them to have "no legal validity." Fourteen of the council's fifteen members voted in favour, including countries like Senegal and Angola, which have benefited from Israeli economic and agricultural technology over the past few years. Desperate to stop the measure, Israel turned not to China but to the United States—only to find that President Obama, frustrated after eight years of working with Netanyahu, waved it through.
From Dakar to Delhi, Israel is forging new alliances and tapping into new markets, but it may find that they are still no substitute for its oldest relationships.