Bibi’s India Visit Shows That the Business of Israel Has Become Business

The Palestinians and Iran took a backseat to commerce and tech. Compare that to Sharon’s India visit in 2003 when terrorism was the issue

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the India-Israel Business Summit in Mumbai, January 18, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the India-Israel Business Summit in Mumbai, January 18, 2018. Credit: Danish Siddiqui
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The contrast between Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India winding up Friday and the last one by an Israeli prime minister 15 years earlier couldn’t be greater.

In September 2003, Ariel Sharon had to cancel his visit to the Taj Mahal in the face of big demonstrations planned by Indian Muslims and leftists, amid even deeper security concerns. The two countries signed six memoranda on issues like the war on drugs, the environment, education and culture, but nothing about business or technology. Indian leaders were critical of Israel’s handling of the intifada then raging.

There was some business talk, but it was all about Phalcon AWACS jets and the Arrow anti-missile system. In the end, twin terror attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv forced Sharon to return home earlier than planned. “We have had to cut short our visit to India for the very same reason we came to India ... international terror,” explained Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid.

Fast forward to January 2018. Netanyahu visited the Taj Mahal without any disruptions. There were defense issues, too, most notably saving the giant $500 million antitank sale by Israeli defense contractor Rafael, but the visit was far more about the defense business, not fighting terrorism. This time the two countries signed nine agreements, nearly all of them dealing with business and technology (and one, oddly, about cooperating on yoga research).

Bibi visited Gandhi’s old ashram and the site of the 2011 Mumbai terror attack whose victims included two Israelis, but he spent much more time on power breakfasts with Indian business leaders and visits to centers for high-tech cooperation. Last month India voted in favor of the UN resolution condemning Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but no one was ready to let that get in the way of blossoming bilateral relations.

“The fact that you can grow your crops better, that you can have cleaner water, cleaner energy, cleaner air ... these are things that make a difference in the lives of people,” Netanyahu said, pooh-poohing the importance of the vote compared to bilateral deals. “I think our cooperation advances that, and ultimately you will see that reflected in all the UN votes, not just now but soon.”

Calvin Coolidge said some 80 years ago, “The chief business of the American people is business.” He was a mediocre president and not a noted observer of the American scene, but he certainly understood the capitalist/consumer ethos that keeps the country running and is as much an inspiration for ordinary people as the Declaration of Independence. What’s the American Dream all about if not material gain through hard work?

The business of the Israeli people was for a long time first about fighting the enemy and second about developing the country. Business wasn’t the kind of things national leaders talked about with their peers and wasn’t the basis for bilateral relations. That why “international terrorism” was at the top of Sharon’s agenda in 2003.

Bibi, on the other hand, came with 130 businesspeople in tow – the biggest ever such delegation out of Israel – and while defense deals were important they were more about business than strategic cooperation.

That’s partly because India isn’t a big player in the Middle East but mostly because fighting the enemy isn’t the priority it once was for Israel. The Palestinians attract attention in fits and starts, like the Jerusalem issue and the U.S. aid cutoff, but they don’t present a threat like they did in 2003, and the world (not just Netanyahu) is prepared to ignore the absence of any progress toward a Palestinian state. India is a case in point. The Palestinians get symbolic support at the United Nations and the like, but New Delhi isn’t going to refrain from accessing Israeli technology.

Iran remains a threat, but India isn’t a decisive factor, and if Tehran is willing to look the other way while India does big business with Israel there’s no reason Israel shouldn’t reciprocate. The fact is, in most of the world, that’s how international relations function. Europe is Israel’s supposed bitter foe on issues like the Palestinians and human rights, but it happily does business with Israel and remains our biggest trading partner by far.

Business, and particularly the business of technology, is the basis not just for Israel’s relationship with India but with all the emerging Asian powers, starting with China, and even some of the older ones, like Japan. Israel has fulfilled the Zionist dream of being just like any other country.

None of this bodes well for the Palestinians. Israel’s currency in the world of business and technology is quite valuable in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago and certainly two decades ago. In the realm of ordinary business, Israel remains a middling power – two-way trade with India was worth just $2 billion last year, for instance – but in the realm of technology it is something a little short of a great power, the kind that deserves the highest accolades given to a foreign leader by the government of one of the world’s biggest countries.

By comparison, the Palestinians can only offer the threat of violence or the moral case that they deserve a state of their own. The latter still resonates through much of the world, but it doesn’t really make things move, not when policy makers are focused on building industry, moving up the value chain through technology and ensuring their people a rising standard of living.

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