Diplomatic enclave: Broadening ties

Tags: Opinion

Israel is ready to make in India and make with India as ties move to higher visibility

Israel is one of the countries that prime minister Narendra Modi truly admires. Shortly after assuming office as prime minister he had publicly stated that he would be visiting Israel. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the few foreign leaders Modi had met on his first visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly. But, ties between India and Israel follow a particular pattern and the NDA government has also tread the same careful path in strengthening relations with Israel.

India and Israel are to mark the 25th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations in 2017. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin’s week-long state visit to India is a celebration of how far Indo-Israeli relations have progressed in the past 25 years as the Israeli leader visits places in India that showcase the close cooperation between the two countries.

Israel had a trade office in Mumbai till 1992 when India decided to upgrade ties to full diplomatic level. Indo-Israeli grew at a slow and measured pace over the next decade as both governments avoided undue publicity to their steadily increasing engagement. The pace was dictated by India’s close ties with the West Asian region and strong support to the Palestinian cause.

Through the past 25 years, each successive government in New Delhi has kept in mind the sensitivities of the Palestinian people and domestic sentiment for the Palestinian cause. Each public overture to Israel has been matched with a high-level interaction with Palestine. Just a week before the Israeli president’s visit, India held the first meeting of a Joint Commission with Palestine in Ramallah where a host of projects were discussed, including an information technology park to be built in Ramallah.

In the past year, Modi has laid special focus on ties with the West Asian region, undertaking highly successful visits to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. After the outreach to the Gulf region, a visit to Israel is next on the cards in the early weeks of the new year, over two years after he indicated his intention to visit Israel.

Though there has been an improvement in Indo-Israeli ties under each successive government in New Delhi, the Modi government has intensified the bilateral engagement. President Pranab Mukherjee’s state visit to Israel in October last year, part of a three-nation tour to Palestine, Israel and Jordan was a milestone in Indo-Israeli relations. Mukherjee chose to stay overnight in Ramallah, he was the first foreign leader to do so. The first visit by an Israeli president Enzer Weizman took place in 1997 and by an Israeli prime minister when Ariel Sharon visited in 2003.

There has been a regular exchange of visits in the past two years; home minister Rajnath Singh, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh visited Israel while Israeli defence minister Moshe Yalon visited India in early 2015. Significantly, Rajnath Singh’s visit to Israel was a standalone tour that did not club a trip to Palestine, indicating a change in New Delhi’s stance.

In July 2015 India abstained during the voting on a resolution criticising Israel for use of excessive force against the Palestinians during the Gaza conflict. India’s abstention was strongly criticised by opposition parties and other groups in India. India abstained again in 2016 on a similar resolution, but it voted against Israel on four other resolutions that were critical of Israel.

In the early years, defence and agriculture were the two sectors that drew Indian interest in Israel. Israel became a reliable source for hi-tech defence equipment. But even more than the Central governments, it was the state governments that reached out to the Israeli government for cooperation in the agricultural sector in learning from Israeli best practices. Later cooperation expanded into areas such as internal security, education, science and technology. India and Israel have a robust defence cooperation. Israel is now the third largest supplier of defence equipment after Russia and the US, though the Israelis contend that defence ties go much beyond buy-seller relationship to joint development.

India and Israel have a wide range of collaborative programmes in areas from defence and security cooperation, trade and investment, enhancing agriculture productivity and efficiency, joint research and development projects, promoting educational exchanges and enhancing people to people relations through tourism and education. Israel is a technology innovator and is undertaking several projects in India. However, two-way trade between them has languished at US $4.5 billion for the past couple of years, with trade in diamonds constituting about 50 per cent of bilateral trade. India’s defence purchases are not included in the trade figures.

As Indo-Israel ties move into higher visibility, the two leaders agreed to “build new pillars in the partnership” and the Israeli president said that Israel was ready to “make in India and make with India.”

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