By Ashok Sajjanhar
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s just concluded visit to India can be termed as highly productive and successful – both on optics and on substance. Just prior to his arrival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had termed the visit as ”historic and special.” This was Netanyahu’s first visit to India, coming 15 years after the first visit by an Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003.
Two aspects of the visit are particularly remarkable. First, that it was a long 6-day visit. Normally Heads of State and Government visit, even the friendliest of countries, for a maximum of 3 or 4 days. That the Israeli Prime Minister decided to invest so much time, effort, energy and commitment to the India relationship is indeed exceptional. Second, the visit came a little more than 6 months after the momentous and path-breaking visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July, 2017, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister to that country after establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992.
Relations in a variety of sectors between the two countries have been expanding in a robust manner since diplomatic ties were established 25 years ago. It is however incongruous that notwithstanding the rapidly expanding ties, exchange of visits at the highest political level did not take place. Prior to assumption of office by NDA government in 2014, the only Presidential visit from Israel was that of Ezer Weizman in 1997 which was followed by PM Sharon’s visit in 2003. All that changed with Modi’s assumption of power. A spate of visits both ways has been witnessed over the last three years. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited India in 2016. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee went to Israel in 2015. He, however, balanced this tour by also visiting Ramallah. Modi himself did not pander to any such demand or niceties and de-hyphenated the relationship with Israel and Palestine by visiting only Israel in July, 2017.
The 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations has hence witnessed both the heads of government visiting each other to provide a significant impetus to bilateral partnership. It was earlier said that India treats Israel as a mistress: that it is happy to have an affair behind the curtains with it but is not prepared to acknowledge this relationship in the open. With these two high profile, back to back visits, this narrative has been shattered once and for all. The relationship has now emerged in the open as a highly promising, normal partnership.
Before the visit commenced, it was being mentioned by several nay-sayers and doubters that the inbuilt contradictions in India’s support for the Palestinian cause and relations with the Arab and Islamic world will make this relationship a non-starter. To cap it, it was alleged that India had voted in the United Nations against the Resolution to designate Jerusalem as the capital of Israel which would be seen by Israel as an unfriendly act. Netanyahu laid all apprehensions on this score to rest at the very beginning of his tour when he said that one negative vote in the United Nations will have no impact on the blossoming relationship.
It is imperative that for the partnership to realise its full potential, both India and Israel behave as mature democracies and try to understand and appreciate the compulsions of each other on a variety of regional and international issues. The long hiatus in upgrading the political relationship to the highest level occurred because of India’s reluctance in acting in a manner that could compromise its interests in West Asia. India is heavily dependent on the Gulf to meet its energy requirements through import of oil and gas as well as for the significant remittances sent home by the large 8 million diaspora working in that region.
Safety and security of the Indian diaspora is also a matter of keen concern for India. India’s hesitation in fully normalising relations with Israel was also dictated to a significant extent by domestic political considerations as the government did not want to be seen to be doing anything that would be construed adversely by the large domestic Muslim population. It would be essential for Israel to be mindful and cognizant of this background so that no misunderstandings or misplaced expectations derail the smooth progress of this propitious bilateral engagement.
The two sides have done well to focus on the huge potential that exists in taking the partnership to the next level. Defence is an area that had emerged even before diplomatic relations were established. Israel had come to India’s help in the wars in 1962, 1965 and 1971, as also post ’92 during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Israel has emerged as the third largest supplier of sophisticated defence equipment and is likely to rapidly go up the ladder in the coming years. It is understood from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tweet that the US$ 500 million Spike anti tank missile deal which was surprisingly rejected by the Defence Research and Development Organisation on the eve of the visit is back on track probably as a government-to-government contract. Israel is now collaborating with India not only in supply of sophisticated defense equipment but also in co-designing, co-production and manufacture of these systems under the Make in India programme. In addition to meeting India’s expanding needs in this field, it will also help in creating jobs and technological upgradation in the country. It will also boost innovation in this sector.
Innovation is a sector in which Israel is the clear global leader. It has the second largest number of startups every year, next only to the United States. This is particularly commendable considering the difference between the two countries in terms of their size, population, GDP etc. Innovation in technology, water management, agriculture etc are areas where both countries can cooperate to mutual benefit and advantage. Several agreements covering a wide array of areas including cyber security, metal batteries, oil and gas, films production, space, solar thermal technologies etc. were signed between the two countries. In addition, several contracts between the private sectors of the two countries were entered into. Netanyahu came to India at the head of a large 130-strong business delegation from 102 companies. It was reported that talks on entering into a Free Trade Area will also commence. This would help in significantly enhancing the volume of bilateral trade from US$ 5 billion at present to the targeted level of US$ 10 billion in the near future.
Prime Minister Modi devoted abundant attention, time and care to be with PM Neatnyahu during the latter’s stay in the country. This was limited not only to receiving him at the airport by setting aside protocol as he had done for Obama (2015), Sheikh Hasina (2017), UAE Crown Prince Zayed Al Nahyan (2016 and 2017), but also accompanying Netanyahu to Gujarat, sharing the stage with him at Raisina Dialogue although Modi was not to speak at the event, and on several other occasions. This sent out a clear message of the importance and significance that Modi accorded to the visit.
Personal chemistry and bonhomie of course plays a useful role in advancing relations between two countries but this is possible only when there is a wide congruence of mutual interest. As is evident, there is a broad commonality of interest between the two countries. Although it is a hyperbole to say as Netanyahu commented that relationship between India and Israel is a ”marriage made in heaven” (he had used the same expression during his recent visit to China), it is nevertheless true that it is a win-win partnership for both the countries. India needs technology, innovation, defence equipment, cooperation in counter-terrorism, training in intelligence gathering etc from Israel, all of which are required to make India a secure, stable and prosperous nation with a better standard of living for its people. For Israel, in addition to the huge market for its manufactured goods and technology as well as defense products (it supplies about 40% of its annual production to India) that India represents, the huge intangible benefit is also the recognition and acceptance it receives from the largest democracy and rapidly growing economic power. More than 30 countries of the UN do not recognize Israel. Being accepted as a friend by India hence holds special value and significance for Israel.
Cultural connections and people-to-people contacts are a significant element of India-Israel partnership. India is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have not faced anti-Semitism. Jews have come to India in different waves over the last two thousand years and lived in different parts of the country without facing any discrimination. Notwithstanding their small numbers, Jews have made a huge contribution to the cultural, artistic, military and literary life in India. Names of some of the better known Indian Jews are Lt General JFR Jacob, Leela Samson, Nissim Ezekiel, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, cine actors David, Sulochana, Nadira etc.
Netanyahu pulled out all stops to woo the Bollywood film industry by hosting the marquee event ”Shalom Bollywood” in Mumbai which was attended by the Bachchan clan and several high and mighty of the film industry. Netanyahu invited them to shoot their films in the beautiful locales in Israel. Two films starring Alia Bhatt, Jacqueline Fernandez and Sushant Singh Rajput were shot a few months ago in Israel and are likely to be released later this year. Bollywood’s embrace of Israel will not only create jobs in Israel but will also provide a significant impetus to tourism to that country.
All the above mentioned synergies and congruity notwithstanding, there are issues like Palestine and Iran on which both countries have divergent views. China and Pakistan will also provide a challenge but of a lower magnitude. It would be expedient for both India and Israel to take these differences in their stride and not allow them to muddy or strain their bilateral ties.
Counter-terrorism, security, defence, cyber-security, agriculture, innovation, water management, films, people to people contact etc are some of the significant areas in which relations can grow rapidly and significantly. It will do well for the two countries to pay their undivided attention to strengthening and expanding this partnership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit will play a colossal role in taking bilateral ties several rungs up the ladder.