Analysis

Netanyahu's India Test: Translating Pomp and Circumstance Into Actions and Deeds

Netanyahu and his wife basked this week in the royal reception orchestrated by Indian Prime Minister Modi. But picking the fruits of this visit will also depend on a body which Netanyahu wishes to downsize: the foreign ministry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara outside the iconic Taj Mahal in India. January 2018
STR / אי־אף־פי

MUMBAI - Cavalry, traditional dances, umbrellas, kites, scarves, flowers, a specially paved helipad, endless red carpets and street signs with his image – the travels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara this week across the Indian subcontinent provided great photo-ops. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is interested in you, there is no limit to the resources invested or to the colorful gimmicks.

In the shadow of the challenges they left behind in Israel, one couldn’t miss their excitement at the royal reception they basked in for five days packed with ceremonies. “I’ve been in the diplomatic arena for 30 years or more and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Netanyahu on one of the internal flights. “There were tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people there at a conservative estimate,” he said in describing the cheering crowds that greeted his convoy along the roadside. “I’ve never seen my picture like that they were shouting ‘Bibi,’ how do they know? In New York I can understand the connection, but in India?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the "Shalom Bollywood" event in Mumbai, India January 18, 2018
\ SHAILESH ANDRADE/REUTERS

Along the way Netanyahu took care to link the warm personal reception he received to the significance this has for Israel’s international standing. As in Louis XIV’s statement “the state is me,” the prime minister is a great believer in personal diplomacy. So is Narendra Modi. Thus, expressions of friendship and gestures of intimacy between the two played a big part in this trip. “This friendship has formed because of Israel’s strengths in defense, economic matters and technology,” explained Netanyahu, “but there is also a personal dimension. I think this is expressed in ties with other leaders too, such as Trump and Putin, and this has great impact.”

However, the great display of amity was not a solo performance. Behind the scenes of this production, a very complex one in terms of logistics and security, there were hundreds of women and men who toiled for a long time. These were mainly foreign ministry officials in India and Israel, who will now have to translate the event into real achievements in many areas. Most of the attention was devoted to the partial salvage of the Spike anti-tank missile deal, but the goals of this trip were much more ambitious.

>> Hollywood vs Bollywood: Netanyahu goes Ellen DeGeneres with Indian superstar selfie <<

The deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific in the foreign ministry, Gilad Cohen, is now charged with implementing a long list of targets as part of the upgrading of relations between the two countries. These include increasing annual trade levels from $4 billion to $20 billion within five years; doubling the number of tourists from India from 40,000 to 80,000 a year; promoting gigantic deals for collaboration in natural gas exploration; customs exemptions and moving towards a free trade agreement; agreements on shipping and air routes; cooperation in high-tech and cyber; increasing the number of agriculture instruction centers from 20 to 30; fixing the status of Indian healthcare workers in Israel; filming some Bollywood productions in Israel – and these are but the fringes of the sari.

There is a problem overhanging this entire gigantic venture. The prime minister, who also serves as the minister for foreign affairs, approved significant cuts to the ministry’s budgets just days before his trip. The blow was softened at the last minute but the treasury is still demanding the closure of Israeli missions around the world and the laying off of dozens of employees in Jerusalem. The sense among foreign ministry employees is that the prime minister enjoys the fruits of their labor on his visit but doesn’t always fight for them when it comes to treasury demands to cut resources.

When asked about this on his visit, Netanyahu said: “You see the ministry functioning well. India is one of our targets for expansion, not closure.” Indeed, some employees there hope that the visit helped him understand the importance of their activities and that cutting resources will be an opportunity to divert funds from some areas around the world to others, allowing them to translate this visit into real achievements. They are particularly annoyed at the attitude of the finance ministry, by which digital diplomacy through a laptop can replace their groundwork in remote areas.

A typical example of this are the 20 centers of excellence run by Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. During his visit Netanyahu and his wife visited one of these, in Gujarat, Modi’s home state and power base. It included greenhouses for growing vegetables based on knowhow and technology developed in Israel. The two walked between the plants, not missing the cherry tomatoes. Netanyahu seemed filled with pride as he heard local farmers describe how Israeli instructors improved their lives. The visit was broadcast live to hundreds of millions of Indians who could see Israel’s contribution to local agriculture. Israel gets all this credit for a tiny financial investment, relative to the results. Three million shekels ($880,000) a year, one tenth of the agency’s budget, is invested in these centers in India. The contribution of Israeli instructors in these areas is huge, with any budgetary increase having great impact on many people’s lives.

Yuval Rotem, the foreign ministry’s director general, foresees great challenges ahead before results are reaped. “This visit led to achievements which are exceptional in the world of diplomacy,” he said in summing up the visit. “Systems in Israel will have to change rapidly in many areas to realize the great potential inherent in Israel-India relations. The extent of this challenge is unprecedented and the work starts now.”

The final decision regarding cuts to the ministry will be made in a few weeks, when the ministry presents its recommendations regarding the closure of some missions. Netanyahu’s decision to divert Israel’s diplomatic efforts from liberal Western Europe to arenas such as India, China, Central Europe, Latin America and Africa will definitely impact the final list. The common feature of these countries is the rise of right-wing governments there. In the era following the Arab Spring, in which fear of Islamic terror and waves of migrants determine policies, Netanyahu sees new opportunities. This element is also part of the personal friendship between Netanyahu and Modi. The two will meet again later this month at the economic forum meeting in Davos, where Netanyahu hopes to meet another friend, U.S. President Donald Trump.