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March 8, 2018 12:04 pm

Hope and Optimism: The Indian-Israeli Relationship

avatar by Sarosh Bana

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at his ceremonial reception in New Delhi, Jan. 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi.

The rapport that has built up between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has transformed New Delhi’s approach to Jerusalem.

In the past, India shunned Israel — so as not to disenchant the Muslim community back home, or alienate the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. India feared that this would have unsettled the Indian diaspora and imperiled crude oil imports.

Strikingly, Netanyahu accompanied Modi through all three days of his state visit to Israel last July, and Modi returned that tribute to the Israeli leader upon Netanyahu’s visit to India six months later. The two men called each other by their first names, and described one another as “my good friend.”

Only one Israeli prime minister ever visited India before Netanyahu: Ariel Sharon, in 2003. Modi’s visit to Israel followed Pranab Mukherjee’s, in October 2015 — the first ever by an Indian president — which too was reciprocated by Reuven Rivlin in November 2016. Rivlin was only the second Israeli president to visit India, after Ezer Weizmann in 1996.

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At the start of his six-day tour of India, Netanyahu hailed Modi as a revolutionary leader. In his farewell statement, the Israeli premiere called his visit “historic” and said it would be “long remembered.” Modi broke protocol to receive Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the New Delhi airport ,and lavished the couple with the fulsome welcome and sumptuous security that India now offers to all state visitors.

The entire Taj Mahal complex was shut down to tourists when the Netanyahus visited Agra, and the 8 km secured route from the Ahmedabad airport to Mahatma Gandhi’s historic Sabarmati Ashram was lined with 50 stages featuring live performances by artists from different Indian states.

Netanyahu’s itinerary included meetings and banquets with Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj; an inaugural speech at the Raisina Dialogue; meetings with Indian businessmen and Jewish community leaders; an exclusive “Shalom Bollywood” event with the Hindu film industry; an interaction at the Centre of Excellence for Protected Cultivation and Precision Farming on Vegetables in Vadrad village in Gujarat, which was developed under the Indo-Israel Agriculture Work Plan; and the inauguration, via video conference, of a Centre of Excellence for date palms in Bhuj.

The first item on Netyanahu’s trip was to join Modi at the renamed Teen Murti Haifa Chowk in New Delhi, to pay homage to the brave Indian soldiers who laid down their lives a century ago in the Battle of Haifa during the last months of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I.

The two countries also signed nine agreements to boost bilateral trade and cooperation across several sectors. Netanyahu, together with 11-year-old Moshe Holzberg, also visited the now refurbished Chabad House in Mumbai — where the boy’s parents, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg (who were directors of the Jewish center), were killed along with six others by Pakistani terrorists during the November 2008 attack on the city.

Netanyahu recounted the visit to Chabad House as one of the two most poignant experiences on his India visit. The other was his meeting with a delegation from the Indian Jewish community, who had for long looked forward to an Israeli prime ministerial visit to India.

In a joint statement issued after delegation-level talks held on the second day of Netanyahu’s visit, the two sides said that their discussions were marked by a mutual desire to accelerate bilateral engagement and scale up the partnership.

This reamp-up will be pursued in three ways.

First, by strengthening existing pillars of cooperation in the areas of agriculture, science,technology and security, all of which touch the lives of both peoples. Second, the sides agreed to venture into less explored areas of cooperation, such as oil and gas, cyber security, film and start-ups. And third, they agreed to facilitate the flow of people and ideas between the countries via policy facilitation, infrastructure and connectivity links, and a fostering of constituencies of support beyond official government programs.

“We are working with Israel to make it easier for our people to work and visit each other’s countries, including for longer work duration,” Modi said. “To bring people closer on both sides, an Indian Cultural Center will soon open in Israel.” He added that it had also been decided to start an annual exchange of bilateral visits by 100 young people from science-related educational sectors.

The two prime ministers also exchanged perspectives on the regional and global situation.

While both sides spoke of their vision for a strong partnership, Israel has undoubtedly been the senior partner in the relationship. Israel, a sliver of a country with a population of 8.5 million that sprang out of the desert 70 years ago,  has spearheaded agricultural and horticultural cooperation by bringing advanced practices and technology to India, a country of 1.34 billion. India’s Indus Valley civilization was the cradle of agriculture and animal husbandry over five millennia ago.

Measuring 20,770 sq km, Israel is about as big (or as small) as the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram — yet it enjoys a trade surplus in two-way trade with India that was worth $5 billion in 2016-17. While Israel’s GDP totals $297 billion to India’s $2.25 trillion, its per capita GDP is $34,800 compared to India’s $6,700.

If government-to-government military sales by Israel were to be included, the trade surplus would be even more lopsided, as Israel is among India’s largest defense suppliers (along with the US, Russia, and France). India is the world’s largest arms purchaser — and Israel’s biggest arms client.

During the visit, word came through of the reinstatement of India’s $500 million deal with Israel for its Spike anti-tank missiles — a deal that New Delhi had canceled on January 2, just prior to Netanyahu’s visit.

India, which has the second-largest standing army in the world after China, and which budgeted Rs3,59,854 crore ($56.6 billion) for its military this year, opted for the Spike, made by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, over the US’ Lockheed Martin/Raytheon Javelin missiles. Netanyahu called the deal “very important,” and said that “there will be many more deals.”

Israel netted its largest-ever defense contract in April of last year, when India awarded Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) contracts totaling almost $2 billion. IAI will supply the Indian Army with medium range-surface to air missile (MR-SAM) defense systems, and a long range-SAM (LR-SAM) air and missile defense system.

India’s Defense Ministry also recently cleared a proposal to procure 131 Barak missiles from Rafael at a cost of Rs460 crore ($72.3 million). India buys military hardware worth an average of over $1 billion from Israel every year.

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of India-Israel diplomatic ties, established in 1992. India had formally recognized Israel much earlier, on September 17, 1950, and a consulate was opened in Bombay in 1953. BJP-led governments have traditionally had closer ties with Tel Aviv. To commemorate 25 years of diplomatic relations, the countries chose A Growing Partnership as the motto for the occasion to signify that their relations are not bound to one moment in time.

Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to Israel last July was both symbolic and ground-breaking. Not only was his visit the first by an Indian prime minister to Israel since its creation in 1948, but it clearly delinked Palestine from India’s relations with the Jewish state — even as it elevated New Delhi’s ties with Tel Aviv to a “strategic partnership.”

In May, Modi reassured visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi that India’s ties with Israel will in no way impinge on its relationship with the Palestinians. There has nevertheless been a clear diplomatic tilt towards Tel Aviv, with Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government having for the last three successive years abstained from voting on UN resolutions against Israel for its alleged war crimes during the 2014 Gaza offensive.

With that said, India has chosen not to appear entirely partisan. In December 2017, it joined 127 other countries in voting at the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution opposing the recent decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. New Delhi was mindful that had it acted differently, the Arab states might have retaliated by acting against Indians working there, and by restricting India’s access to their oil.

The Palestinians viewed the Indian vote favorably, an aspect that had a favorable impact on Modi’s Ramallah visit on February 10 — the first ever by an Indian prime minister. The Palestinian question is part of India’s outreach to the Arab world, with Prime Minister Modi visiting Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as the Palestinian territories over three days. Modi also delivered the keynote address at the World Government Summit in Dubai.

During Netanyahu’s visit, the two leaders discussed the issue of Indian support for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but this was not a central part of their negotiations.

“As we look to the future of this exciting partnership with Israel, I am filled with hope and optimism,” Modi said during Netanyahu’s visit. “In Prime Minister Netanyahu, I have a counterpart who is equally committed to taking the India-Israel relationship to soaring new heights.”

Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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