Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel in July 2017, in a year which marks the 25th anniversary of Indian-Israeli diplomatic ties, is probably amongst his most important so far. Modi will land on Israeli soil, exactly a week after his visit to the US, during which he met with US President Donald Trump for the first time. The visit to Israel is landmark, because it happens to be the first by any Indian PM. What needs to be underscored is that PM Modi, during the course of his tenure, has strengthened ties with Israel, while of course not overlooking the relevance of Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. While many had thought that he would visit Israel early on during his tenure, the PM has waited for more than three years to do so, and has already visited GCC countries — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — as well as Iran.
If one were to examine the trajectory of the bilateral relationship, ties between India and Israel have grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. Bilateral trade is estimated at USD 4.16 billion (this figure does not include defense agreements) and Israeli FDI in India over the past decade and a half (between 2000-2016) is estimated at over USD 100 billion. The India-Israel FTA which was conceived by the erstwhile government may move forward during Modi’s visit. Commenting on this, the Israeli Ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, stated, “It’s long overdue, the political will is there. I hope it will happen soon… I hope the Prime Minister’s visit will be a good catalyst to bring some processes into fruition, including the FTA.”
Cooperation in other spheres like agriculture has witnessed a significant rise. In the sphere of education too, links between both countries have been deepening. In all these areas, Israel has also been actively engaging with state governments. Yet it would be fair to say that even though ties have strengthened in not just the strategic sphere, but also the economic sphere and in areas like agriculture, the low level of people-to-people contact and the low level of knowledge about each other (more so in India) remains a major challenge to the otherwise burgeoning relationship. In an interview, Ambassador Carmon stated:
“There is one point that maybe we haven’t stressed in the past years — the knowledge of each other. India and Israel do not know each other enough. Tourism is important in this. Strengthening the academic links, strengthening the cultural ties, having more students studying here (in India) and there (in Israel).”
While the political leadership should get a large share of the blame for this, a significant chunk of the intelligentsia which in private is not opposed to a reasonable relationship with Israel, is afraid of stating so publicly, since they feel that a strong relationship with Israel may annoy India’s Muslim population. This in spite of the fact that Israel has strong ties with a number of GCC countries including Saudi Arabia. Similarly, some of India’s strategic analysts who are enamored of Israel project the country’s hard side, focusing on the tough stance taken by Israel on key national security issues, while not giving enough attention to the strides made by the country in areas like agriculture, horticulture, water management, and of late, information technology.
As mentioned earlier, there is reasonable awareness of the defense cooperation between both countries. India happens to be the 3rd largest importer of defense arms, estimated at USD 1 billion. In May 2017, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) won a massive USD 630 million contract to supply air defence missile systems for four Indian navy ships. In April 2017, IAI had struck a USD 2 billion deal to provide the Indian army and navy with missile defence systems.
It would also be pertinent to point out that on May 4, 2017, Punj Lloyd Raksha Systems, India’s first private sector small arms manufacturing plant, was inaugurated at Malanpur, Madhya Pradesh. The plant is a joint venture between India’s Punj Lloyd and Israel Weapon Industries. A number of top officials from both sides were present. They included Ambassador Carmon, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and Michel Ben-Baruch, head of SIBAT, the International Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
While it is true that defense cooperation has played an important role in pushing the Indian-Israeli relationship, there are number of areas where India can draw significant lessons from both sides. India, seeking to learn from Israel in the sphere of agriculture, signed an agreement, the Indo-Israel Agricultural Project in 2006. Israel has also set up over 30 Centers of Excellence, the first of which was inaugurated in Gharaunda (Haryana) in 2011.
The real obstacle for New Delhi will be balancing out ties between Iran and Israel.
A number of states, the most recent example being Punjab, are keen to seek Israeli assistance in horticulture and irrigation. What is fascinating is that these centers have been set up in states ruled by different political parties. Irrespective of the political affiliation of the party in power, states have welcomed such cooperation. In April 2017, Ambassador Carmon met with Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, and in May 2017, the ambassador met with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Both sought Israel’s assistance in areas like Horticulture.
During a recent meeting, an Israeli delegation led by Ambassador Carmon invited the Punjab CM to visit Israel in September 2017. They urged the CM coincide his visit with WATEC Israel — an international professional exhibition to be held from September 12-14 in Tel Aviv. The exhibition offers an important platform to showcase state-of-the-art technologies in water and environmental management. The Punjab CM, who is keen to benefit from Israeli expertise in a number of areas such as water management and dairy farming, welcomed the idea and suggested that his delegation could include progressive farmers. Punjab already has two centers for excellence (one in Kartarpur and the other in Hoshiarpur) and Israel has proposed to start another soon.
Another area where India could learn from Israel is the success of its start-ups. One of PM Modi’s key projects is the Start-Up India project. While it has resulted in some positive results, the project still has a long way to go. Given the level of economic disruption taking place globally, this is important for India. It would be pertinent to point out that Tel Aviv has emerged as one of the important innovation centers globally and has also done remarkably well in terms of providing an eco-system for entrepreneurs. Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s 2009 book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle highlights the key reasons for Israel’s success, including the right investments by the government, and two qualities Israelis possess in abundance — discipline and the ability to take risks. During his visit to Israel, it is likely that PM Modi will not just understand the Israeli success story, but will also pursue greater cooperation between both sides.
There are other areas where both countries can enhance their cooperation. In the area of education, exchanges between both sides have steadily risen although they are still way below the true potential. As of 2016, a tenth of foreign students in Israel are from India. During the Israeli President’s visit a number of MOUs were signed to further enhance educational exchanges. A large number of Jews of Indian origin hail from Maharashtra, and there is a growing interest in the Marathi language.
The number of tourists from India to Israel has witnessed an increase. As of 2016, over 40,000 Indians visited Israel. India has been trying to attract more Israeli tourists since 2015, especially those of Indian origin. An increase in the number of flights will give a boost to tourism.
While there is no doubt that India and Israel’s defence and security relationship has witnessed an increase in the strategic sphere, there are still some differences. Ambassador Carmon has commented on India’s ties with Palestine, “India can contribute indirectly by having good relations with both sides … Anything that is not bilateral would defer the solution we all want — which is real, viable peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors.”
The real obstacle for New Delhi will be balancing out ties between Iran and Israel. India has cultivated strong ties with Iran, which Israel, along with the GCC countries, does not have particularly good relations with. For India, Iran is not just a supplier of oil, and through projects like Chabahar Port, India seeks to get improved connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia through Iran.
In conclusion, India-Israel ties are no longer restricted to the strategic sphere and “soft power” is likely to play an important role. Apart from cooperation in a wide gamut of areas, it is also interesting to see the increasing role of new stakeholders, especially the state governments. During PM Modi’s visit, apart from the big-ticket items in security and defense cooperation, a push was given to greater participation by India’s state governments as well as people-to-people contact. Apart from this, India should seek to learn from Israel’s start-up success, so that India’s young entrepreneurs can replicate the same. Israel can contribute immensely to India’s economic growth — both rural and urban. India needs to harness this well.