|By Nilova Roy Chaudhury||July 2017|
New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made history even before he sets foot in Israel, as the first ever Prime Minister of India to visit the ‘Holy Land’. This is one visit during which he will chart the course and flesh out a vision for bilateral ties that is uniquely his own.
Mr Modi’s visit to Israel is the first by an Indian prime minister to that country. He is not scheduled to visit Palestine, thus clearly de-hyphenating Indian policy toward both states. Mr Modi has dispensed with the ambiguity that has characterized India’s pursuit of ties with Israel, even as it celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and close cooperation in areas as diverse as defence, agriculture and high technology.
The stand-alone visit (without the normal stopover in Ramallah in Palestine) is a public affirmation of the “special bonding” between the BJP-led government of India and the state of Israel and is, in fact, a reflection of India’s growing self-confidence in pursuit of its pragmatic foreign policy.
Ahead of Mr Modi’s historic visit to Israel from July 4 to 6, 2017, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the Israeli government’s approval of the “Israeli Cabinet Resolution on Strengthening Ties with the Republic of India.”
This resolution is a direct result of the Israeli Prime Minister’s instructions to concentrate governmental efforts on strengthening political, economic, scientific and cultural ties with India.
Talking of the “steadfast friendship” between Israel and India, Mr Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet that, “This visit will deepen cooperation in a wide range of fields – security, agriculture, water, energy – basically in almost every field Israel is involved in.”
Mr Netanyahu will personally receive his Indian counterpart at the Ben Gurion airport on Tuesday, something he has only done for visiting US Presidents and the Pope.
Celebrating 25 years of Indo-Israel diplomatic relations, the Israeli Government resolution aims at combining the capabilities of both the Indian and Israeli economies for the benefit of both countries.
The measures to be taken by Israeli government ministries stress the importance of the growing bilateral partnership in various fields: Agriculture, Water, Innovation and Research and Development, Space, Cyber, Health and much more, related to security and defence. In addition, the resolution placed emphasis on bringing the modern people of two ancient nations closer together, through deepening cultural ties and encouraging tourism.
Speaking about the significance of this resolution, Israel’s Ambassador to India Daniel Carmon said, “This landmark resolution is a significant tool providing ministries and governmental agencies a roadmap and resources in order to implement PM Netanyahu’s vision of further bolstering the relationship between both our countries.”
A flagship project will be undertaken by both governments in the field of water and agriculture, which will demonstrate Israel’s capabilities while providing solutions to current Indian needs. The project will include solutions to critical concerns related to water conservation, reducing pollution along the River Ganga, using recycled water in irrigation and increasing agricultural production.
Israel, which has made the Negev desert bloom, has the technological expertise to deliver on all these aspects of what will be a “special strategic partnership”.
India appears to have moved closer to Israel, with particularly close strategic links formed on security, defence and counter-intelligence issues. Since the beginning of the millennium, India has also moved closer to the United States, Israel’s closest ally in the international community.
India recognized Israel in 1950, but diplomatic relations were established in1992.
Besides a growing consensus on security, emerging terrorist threats and an expanding agenda of shared regional interests, a common factor driving the two democracies is the economic and business interest.
Both countries have been discussing a free trade agreement (FTA) and nine rounds of discussions have already been held. It is likely an announcement will be made on an FTA during the visit.
Israel’s technological prowess is redefining the relationship. Mr Modi’s vision of bilateral cooperation is anchored on a strong high technology partnership. The Indian PM admires Israel’s achievement in making “the desert bloom.”
He has said he is keen to learn from the Israeli start-up ecosystem and its incubation centres. Innovation is among the best ways of spurring economic growth. Israel invests four percent of its gross domestic product in research and development and much of its success as a start-up nation is attributed to this.
“I share the opinion of many of my people, who see Israel as a beacon of technology, as a country that has managed to survive even though the odds were against it,” Mr Modi said in an interview to Israel Hayom daily on the eve of his visit.
Modi’s visit is expected to focus on forging new defence and cyber security ties, two areas in which Israel feels it is a world leader, the daily said.
There is a certain coyness and reluctance for the leadership of both countries to announce aspects of their growing and critical security partnership. The bilateral defence relationship is deepening, with the centrepiece being the Barack-8 air defence system, built jointly by the two countries in a boost for the Prime Minister’s emphasis on ‘Make in India,’ to help develop a domestic defence industry and reduce arms imports. India is now Israel’s biggest arms market, buying weapons at an average of $1 billion each year.
Given the difficult neighbourhood in which both countries are located, greatly enhanced anti-terror and security cooperation will also feature very high on the bilateral agenda of discussions.
“We will have the chance to discuss major common challenges like terrorism,” Mr Modi wrote in a Facebook post Monday.
India and Israel are also expected to announce strategic partnerships in areas including water, agriculture and space technology during Mr Modi’s visit.
Cooperation in agriculture has been the most successful component of the bilateral partnership. According to Ambassador Carmon, who earlier headed Mashav, Israel’s agency for international development cooperation, there is a plan to set up 25 agricultural research centres across India, to act as platforms for technology transfer, aimed at increasing yields, improving quality of produce and introducing new crops. Israel is also banking on technologies in fields such as drip irrigation, water management and horticulture to raise bilateral trade, which is around the $5 billion mark.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said he hoped the visit would have a significant impact on taking forward the diplomatic and strategic ties between the two nations.
Also speaking at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses at a seminar on 25 years of Diplomatic ties between India and Israel, former Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne (Retd) reflected on India–Israel defence and security ties and said India–Israel interactions over the past seven decades reflect instances of congruence of interests shaping a mutually beneficial partnership. He added that defence ties are not limited to a buyer-seller relationship but involve co-development and co-production projects.
Also speaking on the occasion, Professor Efraim Inbar of Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, hoped the visit of the Indian Prime Minister would elicit greater cooperation and trust between the two nations. He believes that further interaction between the diaspora of both the countries, particularly in the United States, will be mutually beneficial.
Assessing the US influence over India–Israel relations, Nicolas Blarel of Leiden University, The Netherlands, said that while US involvement has been constant, it has neither been consistent nor direct. The US factor in India–Israel relations has evolved over time, depending on the personalities, political constellations in power in India, and regional developments in West Asia.
IDSA Fellow Samuel Rajiv drew attention to the China factor, pointing out that while Israel and China are also celebrating 25 years of their diplomatic ties and pursuing a ‘comprehensive innovation partnership’, their relationship in the areas of security cooperation and defence production and supply were limited because of US opposition to such cooperation.
The Indian Prime Minister’s first visit to Israel will be the focus of considerable global scrutiny as the outcome is likely to bolster both New Delhi’s and Tel Aviv’s regional and extended standing.