From energy to cyber & missiles to irrigation, the once low-key, clandestine ties are now booming under India’s PM Narendra Modi.
By Aditi Bhaduri
“A lot of history and a lot of geography”– was how some years back the then Israeli ambassador to India had explained to this writer, the fascination India had for the numerous Israelis pouring into India. This legacy of history and geography is of course leavened with more mundane factors like a large market, cheaper goods and services and a relaxed milieu. In turn many Indians too have been looking to Israel – mostly for its spirit of enterprise and innovation. And within a short span of six months of the BJP government of Narendra Modi, ties which both countries have been cultivating for awhile, have grown exponentially.
This was expected: the BJP has always been Israel-friendly. Moreover, during Modi’s years of isolation from the West as Chief Minister of Gujarat, it was non-Western countries like Japan, China and Israel that had feted him and invested in his state. Modi had visited Israel during that time.
That the favor would be returned was in no doubt, but the speed has been somewhat unexpected.
In September Modi met Benjamin Netanyahu in New York – the first meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries in more than a decade.
Simultaneously, minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj also met her Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman there. Swaraj had earlier led the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group and had visited Israel in that capacity.
Soon after, the Cabinet Committee on Security gave the nod to a long stalled on charges of corruption deal for the procurement of 262 Barak-I air defense missiles from Israel for the Indian Navy.
Coming on the heels of that deal was another for the acquisition of 8,356 Israeli Spike anti-tank guided missiles and 321 launchers, trumping America’s Javelin missile. This was significant as the Americans had greatly lobbied for it,even offering joint development.
These two deals alone account for $662 million.
What makes Israeli arms so attractive to India is ‘technology and the reliability – they deliver what they promise,’ a source in the military told this author. Much of this technology is border management and surveillance systems – India’s prime requirements.
A little later the two countries tested the second generation Barak missiles which is being jointly manufactured.
Most importantly, however, the new government through meetings and visits, has imparted visibility to bilateral relations – a sharp departure from the previous Congress led UPA government, which for political expediency preferred to keep the relationship in the closet.
In keeping with the landmark bilateral Homeland Security agreement signed during the UPA government, the Israeli National Security Advisor visited India last October.
Then in November India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh traveled to Israel.
With Netanyahu, he discussed, among other things, the Modi government’s ‘Make in India’ policy, aimed at attracting investments and boosting manufacture in the country, including in defense, a proposal Netanyahu is reported to have warmed to.
And now Sushma Swaraj is set to visit Israel later this month. This could possibly pave the way for the Prime Minister’s visit thereafter.
In between, Israel’s ex-President Shimon Peres visited India to boost agricultural cooperation. If defense and security are the obvious areas which come to mind in the context of bilateral relations then agriculture is an area where quietly but directly Israeli know-how and innovation have been touching the lives of millions of Indians.
Following his visit to Israel, where he had witnessed drip irrigation, Modi promoted drip and micro irrigation in Gujarat, transforming the face of agriculture there.
Almost 70% of India’s population engages in agriculture. And many states are engaging in cooperation with Israel under the Indo-Israel Agricultural Coooperation Project, begun in 2008. This is Israel’s largest bilateral development project in the world. It aims to set up 29 Centers of Excellence for Agriculture in 9 states. Five are fully active and in the past two months centers in three states were inaugurated. Little wonder then that the person who recently took office as Israel’s new ambassador to India – Daniel Cameron – is the ex-head of MASHAV.
Israel is also a major participant in the 2015 ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit which begins from today (7th January) with Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir leading the delegation.
The cooperation pendulum is swinging in other directions too. A
mega Water Desalination Plant using Israeli technology is planned for the southern Indian city of Vishakhapatnam, on the lines of an existing one in Gujarat.
The two countries are also slated to soon enter into their first ever agreement for cooperation in the renewable energy sector as India, which currently imports 80% of its energy requirements, is increasingly focussing on renewable energy.
Simultaneously Israel is seeking Indian investments from India for its newfound gas reserves.
Bilateral trade is blooming, standing at $5 billion dollars, excluding defense. Israeli companies are invest in India and expanding their presence and vice versa. A free trade agreement being discussed for awhile may be inked soon.
Cooperation in cyber security, culture and education is ongoing.
As if reflecting the increasing warmth in the strategic partnership the Chabad-Lubovitch House in Mumbai celebrated Hannukah recently for the first time since 2008, when it had been closed down after the gruesome terrorist attack on it. And when Modi tweeted Hannukah greetings to Netanyahu in Hebrew, the latter responded in Hindi.
And at the time of writing this, student communities on social media were abuzz with news that an Indian Muslim student had been elected to the students’ body at the Jerusalem Hebrew University. Which only underscores the fact that, contrary to some widespread (mis)perceptions, Indo-Israeli relations transcend all religious divides.
Aditi Bhaduri is an award-winning journalist & researcher based in New Delhi.
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