Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations. Like every year, the event was covered assiduously by both the American and Israeli media, who carefully parsed each element of the Israeli leader’s speech. But in fact, the addresses at the annual U.N. General Assembly are usually just window dressing that obscures the main event: high-level meetings between heads of state that take place on the sidelines of the New York confab. This was especially true for Israel, for whom the most important development this year was not a predictable speech in which Netanyahu likened Hamas to ISIS, but a little-heralded handshake with recently elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The two leaders met on Sunday, in what was the first meeting between an Indian prime minister and his Israeli counterpart in 11 years. It was also Bibi’s first scheduled stop when he arrived in New York. “We are two old peoples, some of the oldest of the nations on earth, but we’re also two democracies,” Netanyahu said at a press appearance with Modi. “We’re proud of our rich traditions but we’re also eager to seize the future.” The Indian leader, who met earlier that day with American Jewish leaders, reciprocated in kind, noting “India is the only country where anti-Semitism has never been allowed to come up, and where Jews have … lived as an integral part of our society,” and that “there was a time in the city of Mumbai that Hebrew was officially taught in the university and even one of the mayors of Mumbai city was from a Jewish family.” But the meeting wasn’t simply an exchange of pleasantries.
Netanyahu invited Modi to visit Israel, something the Indian leader had done as a local governor in 2006, but would be historic for an Indian prime minister. And according to the Hindustan Times, the Israeli leader proposed a joint cyber-defense initiative between the Jewish state and India, laying the groundwork for closer intelligence and technological ties. Notably, while Modi went on to meet with other world leaders, he did not meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
None of this is a coincidence. The encounter was the culmination of burgeoning Israeli-Indian relations that have been deepening behind-the-scenes and are now bursting into the open. As Bard College’s Walter Russell Mead wrote in 2010, when Israel was polling more positively in India than even in America:
Currently, Israel isn’t just popular in India. It is India’s largest supplier of high-tech weapons and the growing cooperation between the two countries is spreading into both economic and political fields. There is a strategic compatibility in their interests. Economically, the marriage of Indian and Israeli high-tech know how with India’s enormous force of educated, English-speaking labor, its vast internal market, and Israel’s marketing experience and connections with the advanced industrial economies make for a natural complementarity. Israel welcomes the rise of Indian economic and political influence in the Middle East and East Africa. Both countries view the activities of radicals in Pakistan and their use of Pakistan and Afghanistan for wider regional ambitions with deep concern.
And that was four years ago, before the rise of ISIS, the election of Modi, and some of Israel’s most intensive efforts to cement ties in Asia–including with India, the world’s largest democracy. In 2014, these trends have begun to come to a head, reshaping the local landscape. As U.S. peace envoy Martin Indyk noted last month, “Israel is not anymore the weak and small and dependent state that for so long characterized its position in its relationship with the United States. Now it has a strong army. It has a strong economy. And it has developed relations with world powers that it didn’t have before. Few people noticed that the Indian government came out in support of Israel in this war; social media in China was pro-Israel.” Thus, even as English media outlets debated whether Israel had “lost” the media war over Gaza, non-English media in Asia told a very different story.
The historic election of Narendra Modi, which brought to power India’s first majority government in 30 years, backed by a broad electoral coalition including the young, the poor, and a rising professional class, has only accelerated these developments. Like the elections of leaders like Menachem Begin and Barack Obama, Modi’s meteoric rise embodies many fundamental generational shifts in his country’s political and social fabric. One of these is an increasing identification with Israel as a successful entrepreneurial culture–something India seeks to emulate–and as an ally in the battle against Islamic extremism. At the same time, there is a growing rejection of the traditional narrative that cast the Zionist project as akin to India’s colonial oppressors, which partly underlay the country’s 1975 vote for the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution at the United Nations. Consequently, where previous Indian governments privately did extensive business with Israel while publicly excoriating it over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the new government rejected a resolution condemning Israel’s conduct during the recent Gaza war.
At the same time, the acceleration of India-Israel relations should not be overstated. While the trend towards greater and more public cooperation is undeniable, it is also gradual, and tempered by India’s 180 million Muslims, many of whom take a more critical posture towards the Jewish state. Modi himself was barred from the United States for years after 2002 riots in his province of Gujarat resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, including hundreds of Muslims, though he was cleared of wrongdoing by India’s Supreme Court in 2012. A Hindu nationalist, the prime minister has worked to distance himself from the violence and cast himself as an inclusive leader, but many remain skeptical. One test of this persona will be how Modi balances building ties with Israel with representing the grievances of India’s Muslims. An attempt to finesse this tension was India’s vote in favor of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s inquiry into the Gaza conflict, with a mandate that did not mention Hamas and was consequently rejected by the U.S. and European Union. Given that the success of the vote was a foregone conclusion in a body stacked with Israel’s opponents, however, India’s assent was largely symbolic.
The Bibi-Modi rendezvous in New York, then, poses many tantalizing questions for both countries. Will Modi become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel? How far–and how fast–will India take its deepening ties to Israel out of the closet and into the public and political spheres? Depending on how these and other prospects play out, Modi’s meeting with Netanyahu could well presage a sea change in Israel-India relations for years to come.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.