By TRIDIVESH SINGH MAINI
New Delhi : 2017 marks the 25th year of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. PM Narendra Modi, who is likely to visit Israel in July, will be the first Indian PM to visit the country. President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in October 2015 and was the first Indian President to do so. During the previous NDA and UPA governments there were a number of high level visits.
Holistic nature of the relationship
Strategic and defence cooperation has understandably dominated the conversation between both countries, since they face similar threats, in the past two decades. Yet, this relationship is no longer restricted to the strategic sphere. Both countries are developing increasingly close linkages in areas like agriculture, and there is immense potential in other areas like Information Technology.
“Soft power” is not something which most commentators would associate with the India-Israel relationship. There is a strong Indian diaspora in Israel (the total number of Jews of Indian origin is estimated at 45,000). A significant number migrated post Independence from states including Maharashtra, Mizoram and Kerala.
The number of Indians in the NRI category is estimated however at a mere 300, with a substantial percentage being students or those involved in the diamond trade. Jewish heritage in India and educational linkages between both countries are likely to play a pivotal role in this relationship.
Since 2015, India has been focusing on attracting Israeli tourists to visit important Jewish sites in India, and a number of synagogues have been renovated. The number of Indian tourists visiting Israel has increased in 2016, and was estimated at over 40,000.
Security linkages between Israel and India
There is not an iota of doubt that security ties play a key role in the bilateral relationship. Israel is the third largest supplier of arms to India, having bagged orders worth $1 billion for India in the past three years.
On April 6, 2017, both sides signed an agreement. The state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries will provide the Indian military with an advanced air defence system (including medium-range surface-to-air missiles). Two other deals are likely to be finalised over the next two months – spike anti-tank missiles for India’s Army and Barak-8 air defence missiles for the Indian navy.
Most intellectuals and commentators look at the bilateral relationship in a rather simplistic manner, and do not pay attention to two points:
First, the Arab states are no longer an irritant in the bilateral relationship between India and Iran.
While commenting on this Israeli ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon made this point: “Nowadays, things have changed in the Middle East and Israel has good relations with a few Arab countries. We (Israel and some Arab states) have joint-interests with many others. We see eye to eye on danger coming out of Iran,” he said.
Interestingly, India’s ties with both GCC countries and Israel have improved in recent years. Modi has already visited UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While it was expected that he would visit Israel not long after taking over office, he is visiting in the third year of his tenure. Though, of course, there is no doubt that New Delhi and Tel Aviv do have differences over Tehran.
Second, both countries are exploring common ground in a number of areas, and state governments, irrespective of party affiliation, are making concerted efforts.
A number of states have sought to benefit in the area of agriculture. Israel has set up centres of excellence in a number of states – Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. The Israeli ambassador to India while speaking on India-Israel relations in Hyderabad in February 2017 put forward Israel’s plans: “Over the years, we have set up 15 centres of excellence in agriculture in the country across six states in phase I and II and in phase III, we propose to set up about 25 centres over the next two-three years. Of these, two are planned to come up in Andhra Pradesh and two in Telangana and one each are on the verge of being commissioned in Kerala and Tamil Nadu,” he explained.
In 2016, it was also decided that 14 micro-irrigation projects will be commenced in Haryana. Only recently, Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh also met with the Israeli envoy and sought Israeli assistance in irrigation. The Israeli envoy mooted the idea of setting up working groups so that both sides could work effectively towards tapping business opportunities. The envoy also put forth his country’s interest in setting up an IT hub in the state.
Links between intellectuals
If one were to look beyond economic cooperation, as well as cooperation in areas like IT and horticulture, there is an increase in exchanges between intellectuals from both countries. There were limited exchanges earlier restricted to strategic analysts from India and Israel.
The OP Jindal Global University set up a Centre for Israel studies in August 2012, and organised a number of seminars and conferences pitching for closer people to people contact, especially student linkages, between both countries. In March 2017, the Centre along with Tel Aviv University and the Middle East forum organised a conference titled “India-Israel Academic Dialogues: Political and Cultural Crossings”.
This conference was truly an eye-opener, since it brought to the fore the gamut of issues on which there is potential for bilateral cooperation between both countries. Academics, journalists and politicians from different persuasions were present, and spoke about the need for holistic engagement with Israel, and addressed the need to shed hypocrisies.
A special address by the Israeli ambassador to India, on April 25, organised by The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library jointly with the Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation was also interesting.
The Israeli ambassador referred to the potential of soft power and the need for greater understanding on both sides. While praising the Modi government, the ambassador did highlight the contribution of previous governments and laid emphasis on “institutionalising the relationship”.
As Modi heads to Israel, he is likely to not restrict the dialogue to the strategic sphere. The PM, who lays immense emphasis on economic ties and soft power, would do well to explore other areas which will help in normalising the relationship. Apart from areas like agriculture, India can also learn from Israel’s success in start-ups. It is likely that the PM will visit an innovation and technology park.
In recent years, Israel has achieved immense success in IT start-ups. Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s 2009 book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle cites some of the reasons for Israel’s success in start-ups. The key reason cited is the ability to take risks. Israel’s success in start-ups has also been attributed to the fact that it has invested about 4 per cent of its gross domestic product in research and development since 2000.
Modi, who has focused on bottom-up diplomacy, should also encourage closer cooperation between Indian state governments and Israel, especially in the economic sphere. This will deepen the relationship and also play a role in building consensus since a number of states likely to benefit from cooperation are not BJP-ruled.
In the sphere of education too there is need for more educational exchanges between universities. A substantial number of Indian students are already studying in Israel. During his visit in 2016, the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, made the point that Indians comprised 10 per cent of total foreign students in Israel.
Over 15 MoUs were signed during the Israeli president’s visit between educational institutions.
Overall, there is need to re-examine the way we deal with Israel. We need to realise that like many other countries, Israel faces similar economic and environmental challenges and there is space for cooperation.
Links in these areas should not be politicised. Before reaching any conclusion about Israel and Israelis, sufficient interaction between citizens of both countries is important.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat)