India-Israel Ties: Moving Beyond Defence Cooperation – OpEd

The President of India, President Mukherjee will pay first State visit to Israel from October 13-15, 2015. The upcoming visit symbolizes the changing dynamics of India-Israel relations as well as is part of India’s wider re-engagement strategy viz. West Asia. India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 and since then the relationship has evolved into a multi-dimensional partnership. The two countries are engaged in a range of issues of bilateral interest including cooperation in agriculture, science & technology, education, etc. The visit will further cement bonds of cooperation between the two sides and enhance mutual understanding.

India’s Israel policy has been always under the cloak of secrecy, restricted mostly to hi-tech military cooperation, but this veil is being gradually lifted especially due to the active efforts of the new Indian Government under Modi Administration. India is now engaging more openly with Israel with respect to the technological cooperation in agricultural sector, renewable energy, water management, as well as continued Israeli support in capability building of Indian defence forces. Israel is one of the largest suppliers of military hardware to India and most of the cooperation is in the niche sectors. Both countries have shared history of facing terrorism from their respective neighbourhoods and this aspect has played a vital role in bringing them together in sharing security concerns and expertise. India has often described Israel as India’s reliable partner. The relationship between these two countries has flourished despite India’s continued support to the Palestinian cause.

India-Israel defence cooperation is moving beyond the traditional buyer-supplier relationship, the armed forces of India and Israel are likely to hold the first-ever joint exercise since diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in 1992. The elite Special Forces of the two countries are likely to take part in a joint exercise after the Joint Working Group (JWG) on Defence Cooperation finalises dates and venues. Even though Israel is one of the biggest weapon suppliers to India, the two countries have not carried out any joint military exercise due to political sensitivities within India regarding ties with Israel.

Israel and India collaborate closely in combating terrorism with ‘Mossad’ and other agencies working with the Indian Intelligence agencies on a regular basis.  However, these ties are rarely mentioned in public domain. Joint exercises between the militaries of the two countries will send a signal that India and Israel are taking their strategic and Defence ties to a new level.

The current visit however seeks to push the envelop of the bilateral relationship further, by expanding cooperation in the field of agriculture, science & technology, education, etc. Cooperation with respect to agricultural sector is important for India as making agriculture profitable to farmers is a matter of great importance. Agriculture employs roughly 50 per cent of country’s labour force but contributes only up to 16 per cent of the GDP. Farmers in India are yet to benefit from the technological advancements shaping country’s services and manufacturing sector. Introduction of better’s crop varieties and advanced farming techniques have a potential of transforming the lives of rural communities across India.

Israel’s envoy to India Ambassador Daniel Carmon said, “Agriculture is one of the main pillars of Israel-India relations and we are about to enter the 3rd phase of this agreement that will expand our cooperation even further. We are working with India in Agriculture since 2006 when both countries signed a cooperation agreement that today includes 26 centres in 9 states, with full partnership between MIDH and MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. The aim of Indo-Israel Centres of Excellence, spread all over India, is to ensure food security- increase productivity and improve the quality of produce.”

Israel’s expertise in water resource management and cultivation of arid land can be crucial in helping India ensure food security for more than 1.2 billion people. India has not only adopted Israeli technologies like drip-irrigation but successfully introduced new crops with the help of Israeli experts to the region, such as an olive plantation in Rajasthan.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has had a healthy growth from US$ 200 million in 1992 (comprising primarily trade in diamonds), bilateral merchandise trade has diversified and reached US$ 5.19 billion in 2011. However, the past few years have seen a decline in total trade due to the global economic recession. In 2014, the bilateral trade stood at US$ 4.52 billion.

The visit of the President will also be a precursor to the much anticipated visit of PM Modi to Israel, which is expected to take place early next year. With the visit of President Mukherjee to Israel, India is trying to balance its interests in the West Asia region. By already actively engaging with UAE and perhaps a few more countries in the Gulf and West Asia in the coming months, India can blunt any possible criticism when PM travels to Israel. PM Modi’s prior visits and engagement with the Arab world would create the required space for him to meaningfully deepen and strengthen Indo-Israeli ties. And all this he can do while also earning the distinction of being the first Indian Prime Minister to have the courage to travel to Israel.

*Shashwat Tiwari is a Strategic Affairs Researcher at Oval Observer Foundation, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @ishashwattiwari


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