Israel on Modi’s Mind

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Why Modi's forthcoming visit to Israel will be a historical correction
It was an inevitable headline: Narendra Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. In his first year in power, the most photogenic moments were provided by his hyperactive internationalism. Shuttling between the East and the West, he has added a global dimension to the national narrative, as if he was in a hurry to seize that piece of history India had lost since the time of Nehru. Unlike his great predecessor, Modi travels the world without the excess baggage of ideology; he is as much engaged in building the cult of an internationalist from the East—Made in India and saleable in the global market of leadership—as he is in unshackling India from the residual superstitions of Third Worldism. The journey to Jerusalem is no surprise.

As his every foreign trip has shown, Modi is a man of big messages, and he is fully aware that no other leader from Asia has the democratic legitimacy or a sense of nationalist independence to take the role of Wise Man from the East today. His counterparts elsewhere in Asia are too steeped in their domestic exigencies to play the part. Power has turned Modi into an open-minded globalist. When he goes to Israel, a country—or an idea—that drives many Indians fed on a diet of Third World solidarity on the Palestinian cause to hysteria, he will be breaking a taboo.

No other country perhaps evokes such extreme passions as Israel does. In a widely-shared horror story in the history of nations, it is an illegitimate entity carved out of Palestinian land. In this story, the images from Gaza strip and the West Bank only depict the dehumanising temptations of an occupier. For so long, the hero of the story was that homeless statesman in his trademark keffiyeh, accessorised by a symbolic holster, flying from one Third World capital to another, spreading the gospel of victimhood. And India, a champion of the oppressed, was always a welcoming host to Yasser Arafat.

The story was a bestseller in places such as Delhi because it fitted into the black-and-white narrative of the homeless versus the predator. We loved the image of the boy in tatters throwing a stone at the armed coloniser, and the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish soothed our conscience. Set against the romance of the Palestinian struggle was the Jewish state that justified its every act of suppression in the name of the Biblical story of the Promised Land, and in the memory of the Holocaust. The original homeless reclaimed their home by denying the Palestinians their land, or so went the version of the romantics. For them, the global terror with a Palestinian back story was a struggle for freedom, and Israel’s struggle for existence was state terrorism. What the Israeli writer Amos Oz calls a historical real estate dispute continues to divide minds even beyond the Middle East.

India, being a good friend of Palestine, acknowledged the existence of Israel only belatedly. In spite of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, India was rather defensive, and tentative, about its dealings with Israel. India was always under strain to balance its recognition of Israel with its solidarity with the Palestinian cause, no matter this position only aggravated an irony that the Indian establishment pretended it did not see: Palestine’s status as the homeland of suicide bombing and the martyrdom chic of jihad was getting increasingly incompatible with India’s status, like Israel’s, as a victim state of radical Islamism. Even as Israel replaced the erstwhile Soviet Union as the biggest defence technology supplier to India, New Delhi did not want to be seen as a friend of Israel.

It is these accumulated prejudices and pretenses of an India steeped in the misplaced morality of the Third World— more a mindset than a geographical entity—that Modi will be making redundant when he visits Israel. It should have been a natural destination for Modi’s predecessors. The relationship now has a chance to go from the transactional to the emotional. There are many reasons why. Armed and sleepless, Israel is in a state of permanent vigil; for some people in the region, and even for our own peanut socialists and other sundry panegyrists of the world’s wretched, it is a fiction imposed upon the humanity by a Western conspiracy. India too knows the price of existence, and what it means to be a nation of disputed histories. The only difference is that we are a bit stoical about loss of lives, which are comparatively cheap here. The shared anxieties of internal security should alone make these two countries natural allies.

That said, it will be easier for Israel to be appreciated by the world if the genuine agony of Palestinians—currently caught between Hamas, their terrorist guardians, and Israeli defenders—is addressed by a less belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu. Maybe Modi can give his friend Bibi a few tips on how to neutralise extremities at home and beyond with the power of the winner. Unfortunately for some people, home is an argument without an end.