There was much celebration on this Fourth of July in two unlikely places: Israel and India—and not because it was American Independence Day. When Narendra Modi landed in Ben Gurion Airport yesterday, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit the Jewish state, the international chessboard shifted in ways that will benefit Israel, India—and the U.S.
Modi’s historic visit has sparked a cathartic release of the pent-up affection that has long existed between the two nations. As I have explained before, India, despite having the third largest Muslim population in the world, is home to more people who could be described as “pro-Israel” than any other country. And Jews are grateful that India offered them refuge for millennia, providing one of the very few safe havens in the world where Jews could live free from persecution.
Indian foreign policy, however, has traditionally not reflected the pro-Israel sentiments of average Indians. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a founder of the “non-aligned movement” of developing nations that consistently sided against Israel in her conflicts with the Arab world. Nehru’s party, the Congress party, has ruled India for most of the years since the country became independent in 1947. Catering to voters in India’s Muslim communities and on the left, Congress-led India has been a consistent champion of the Palestinian cause.
Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has traditionally reflected the pro-Israel sentiments most prevalent in India’s Hindu majority. These sentiments are rooted in India’s long history of struggle against Muslim conquest, and the fact that to this day, India is one of the prime targets of Islamist terrorism. According to Indian author Madhu Kishwar, BJP leaders saw Israel as a natural ally “since Jews are victims of the same forces that plundered, looted, ravaged and enslaved India for centuries and then carried out ethnic cleansing of Hindus in their own homeland to create Pakistan as an Islamist state.” Kishwar added that “[t]he same policy is being currently pursued in [the Indian Muslim-majority region of] Kashmir through the use of Pakistani-backed terrorist organizations wearing the mask of ‘freedom struggle’ exactly the way Hamas does vis-à-vis Israel.” As multicultural democracies that have long been on the frontlines in the War on Terror, India and Israel indeed have much in common.
After decades of refusing to recognize Israel, India finally established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state 25 years ago under the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Cooperation between the two countries grew, particularly in defense, technology and agriculture, under Indian governments of different parties. But domestic politics continued to keep India’s growing ties with Israel largely under the radar. However, when Modi’s BJP routed the Congress party in a wave election in 2014, many hoped that India’s pro-Israel “silent majority” could soon some out of the closet. Those hopes were realized yesterday.
Israel has much to gain from its growing friendship with India. The Jewish state has long endured isolation on the world stage, often orchestrated by the very “non-aligned movement” of which India was a leader. As the world’s largest democracy and second most populous nation, India can help Israel break that isolation. Israel can also, of course, benefit from strong trade ties with a nation whose population exceeds 1.3 billion.
India, for its part, has much to gain from Israel. Indian journalist Kanchan Gupta, in Israel to cover Modi’s visit, writes that the great potential in the burgeoning ties between India and Israel is “not only about guns and homeland security, counter-terrorism and radical Islamist violence. It is about the great disruptor of the 21st Century—technology. Modi’s visit will initiate a technology-intensive relationship whereby Israeli cutting-edge knowhow will be applied to India’s farms and in managing, recycling and desalinating water.” Gupta notes that India will also benefit from increased cooperation with Israel on cybersecurity and aerospace.
Modi’s visit also demonstrates that India is ready to play a strong role in uniting the world against international terror. That is good news for Israel. And it is good news for the U.S.
Modi arrived in Israel on a very auspicious anniversary: 41 years to the day after Israeli commandos raided Entebbe Airport in Uganda, rescuing passengers from a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Only one Israeli was killed at Entebbe: Unit commander Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the older brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
Upon his arrival in Israel, Modi noted the significance of “the day when your prime minister, and my friend, Bibi, lost his older brother Yoni, while saving the lives of so many Israeli hostages. Your heroes are an inspiration for the younger generations.”
It is difficult to imagine most of India’s previous prime ministers, who felt obligated to publicly support “the Palestinian cause,” giving such a warm and unqualified tribute to a fallen Israeli soldier. It is also difficult to imagine that an Indian prime minister would visit Israel without also visiting the Palestinian leadership. Yet Modi is indeed eschewing contact with the Palestinian side during this historic trip. Although he recently met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in India, Modi is sending a significant signal of support for Israel by declining to visit Abbas in Ramallah.
Rather than meeting with Abbas, Modi is taking a meeting that symbolizes the shared interests of India and Israel in the fight against Islamist terror: with 10-year-old Moshe Holtzberg, orphaned as an infant when Islamists murdered both his parents in the “26/11” Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. Modi will also meet with Sandra Samuel, the Indian nanny who saved young Moshe’s life during those attacks.
Modi has consistently used his bully pulpit to inveigh against the evils of international terrorism. He has mocked the “good terrorists/bad terrorists” policy of India’s neighbor, Pakistan, which defines “bad terrorists” as terrorists who attack Pakistan and “good terrorists” as those who attack on Pakistan’s behalf (invariably against India). The U.S. should recognize India’s value as its natural ally in the War on Terror. I have criticized our habit of characterizing international jihad as a war against “the West”: That is an insult to all of those non-Westerners who have been fighting Islamist terror, including in the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, West Papua, Timor-Leste—and even in Russia, China, and throughout the Muslim world. And, of course, in India. We should recognize our common cause with these non-Western victims of terror. And just as India helped to organize much of the non-Western world into the non-aligned movement several decades ago, perhaps India can now organize many of those same countries in the battle against terror.
Modi’s trip to Israel demonstrates that India is ready to assertively pursue its own interests, rather than reflexively acquiesce to the agendas of others. India’s foreign policy is no longer haunted by the ghost of Nehru. That is good not only for Israel, but for the U.S. and its allies. For a strong and confident India will not only make a great contribution to the War on Terror. It will also serve as a regional counterweight to an increasingly revanchist China, helping to bolster America’s allies in the region. Many of the countries who have been fighting off China’s aggressive claims to territory and sea rights are now actively seeking closer ties with Modi’s India.
The U.S., like Israel, will soon come to appreciate its natural alliance with the world’s largest democracy.
David B. Cohen formerly served as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs. He co-chaired the Federal Interagency Group on the Guam Military Buildup, and served on the Trump-Pence Asian-Pacific American Advisory Committee.