By: Arsen Ostrovsky
The India-Israel relationship which is already warm and robust, is a rapidly growing work-in-progress, grounded in strong foundations of two proud people, united in shared values of democracy, tradition and innovation. In this context, the meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday on the sidelines of the UNGA was historic and ground changing, putting the two nations on a turbo trajectory.
This was the first meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Israel in 11 years, signifying the importance both these leaders attach to cultivating this relationship. It is noteworthy that this was also Mr Netanyahu’s first meeting with any world leader upon arriving in the United States for the UN. As for Mr Modi, there is no doubt that he gets the India-Israel dynamic — He gets how special this relationship is and the prospect that even stronger ties, especially in trade, would be a clear win-win outcome for both nations.
Sunday’s meeting was predominantly focused on increased trade, diplomatic and defense ties between the two nations, and Foreign Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Avigdor Lieberman, who met on Wednesday, expectedly followed-up on the broad proposals discussed between the two Prime Ministers with more specific deals and timeframes.
Two areas received special attention. First, water and agriculture technology: Here, Israel is a world leader and there is a real demand for its know-how in India. Second, defence cooperation: Within this sector, there was special focus on cyber-security, which both leaders identified as a key strategic threat and where both nations have much experience and technology to offer. Mr Netanyahu even extended an offer for India to participate in a joint cyber-defence project, which would unite both the military and civilian high-tech defence sectors. India is already one of Israel’s most important trade partners in defense. In fact, at the same time as the two Prime Ministers were meeting, the ink was just set on an Indian Navy purchase of advanced Israeli missiles from leading Israeli defence company Rafael, in a $143 million deal.
When Israel and India established full diplomatic relations in 1992, bilateral trade was $200 million. Today it is $6 billion. If the current trajectory is continued, by 2020, two-way trade can surpass $10 billion. This has been the culmination of a lot of behind the scenes work and effort from the respective foreign and trade ministries. And even though the India-Israel relationship has remained low-key, both countries now have, at the helm, leaders who truly appreciate the benefit of better bilateral ties and are sincerely keen on developing this.
Importantly, there is a growing positive reflection of Israel, and Israeli people, on the Indian street, with Indians strongly admiring Israel’s breathtakingly successful entrepreneurial and innovative culture, especially for a nation that is only a miniscule fraction of its size and population. Indians are also increasingly seeing Israel as an ally in their battle against Islamic extremism.
As for Israel, it has traditionally been very Euro and US centric in terms of its trade and foreign policy. But the current Government especially has recognised that Israel is in an increasingly global world, there is great opportunity for developing ties in Asia, which for many years were either neglected or under-appreciated. Today, Jerusalem understands and fully appreciates that there is increasing demand and admiration for the Jewish state’s technology and innovation, including in India, and it is keen to capitalise on that.
The India-Israel relationship is based very much on mutual interest and benefit, especially in the field of technology, where Israeli high-tech and innovation meets India’s vast work force of highly-educated, tech-savvy, English-speaking labour. It is, quite literally, a high-tech marriage made in heaven.
In terms of foreign and security policy, it is important to underscore that both nations are rich and proud democracies — Israel the only democracy in the Middle East and India the largest democracies in the world. Mr Modi is fully cognisant of this. From Mr Netanyahu’s perspective, it should come as no surprise if he raised the issue that India is currently one of the largest importers of Iranian oil, and the importance of isolating the regime in Tehran, which continues to use its petro dollars to fund terror operations around the world.
Because Mr Modi understands only too well the dangers posed by militant Islam, he truly appreciates Israel’s security situation, including the threats posed to the Jewish state from terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. India has not been immune to terror attacks by Islamic extremists and as a key regional player, faces its own unique security threats. Israel was also only one of the few countries that Mr Modi visited as Chief Minister of Gurajat (in 2006), which provided him with a special first-hand insight into Israel’s security situation.
Importantly, the appointment of Ms Sushma Swaraj as External Affairs Minister has also been much welcomed by Jerusalem, as she served as Chairwoman of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group and had visited Israel previously (in 2008). All this has been reflected in a more supportive position by the Indian Government of Israel’s own battle against Islamic terrorists, especially in the wake of the most recent campaign against Hamas.
Yes, it was unfortunate that India voted in favour of the utterly biased and wholly discredited UN investigation against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council, but that should not take away from the fact that overall, the Modi Government was supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from the threat of Hamas rockets and tunnels. This was reflected by his Government’s successful push back against a proposed condemnation of Israel in the Indian Parliament, with Ms Swaraj being instrumental in this.
Looking ahead, there are four key areas of importance in the India-Israel bilateral: First, increased trade, and greater military cooperation against the joint security threat posed by growing militant Islam; second, India reducing its oil dependence on Iran, thereby removing a key source of revenue for the Iranian regime to fund in worldwide terror operations; third, greater support for Israel in international arenas, most notably at the United Nations; and finally, more high-level meetings between the nations, including an ambitious Government-to-Government meeting in Jerusalem and New Delhi. Hopefully, Mr Modi will take up Mr Netanyahu’s offer to visit Israel in the near future to enhance and cement bilateral ties even further.
:: The Pioneer