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The Big Leap: Modi redefines India’s Israel policy
Posted:Jul 3, 2017
 
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By Saroj Mohanty
 
Narendra Modi is the first Prime Minister of India to set foot on Israel July 4, marking a decisive break from the past and signalling an open embrace of the Jewish state. By undertaking the standalone visit, Modi has dispensed with the coyness, a certain ambiguity that has characterized India’s pursuit of ties with Israel, despite 25 years of diplomatic relation and cooperation in areas as diverse as defence, agriculture and high technology. The visit, a public affirmation of the “special bonding”, is in fact a reflection of the growing self-confidence of India in its pragmatic foreign policy.
 
India recognized Israel in 1950, but diplomatic relation was established in 1992. While significant military cooperation went on during the interregnum since the 1960s, the ties have blossomed into a multifaceted partnership. Today, India-Israel ties have its own mass and the momentum. And Modi now wants to put his own stamp on the relationship, taking it to a level befitting the two knowledge economies.  
 
Modi is on record that he wants India to become a “leading power” and not just a “balancing force” in the world. And to become powerful, India has to have strong ties with countries like Israel which can aid its rise. He also knows that the quest for leadership position depends on the success in expanding the economy.
 
At the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had scheduled a meeting with Modi during which both leaders had reportedly discussed the shape of future bilateral relations. Besides a growing consensus on security, emerging threats and expanding agenda of shared regional interests, a common factor driving the two democracies is the economic and business interest. Israel is looking east, seeing clear benefits in leveraging its technology and reputation as an “innovation nation”.  Citing interesting examples of Israeli innovation -- how scarce water resources has inspired Israelis to develop the world's most advance technologies for re-using water, and how scarce agricultural land has inspired them to learn how to get more milk out of every cow -- Netanyahu has said his country is “open for business”. Israel is eyeing the growing Indian middle class, a market for its consumer goods. It wants more Indians to visit Israel. During the prime ministerial visit, the Israeli government is likely to announce measures to facilitate shooting of Bollywood films in that country.
 
Technology in fact is redefining the relationship. Modi’s vision of bilateral cooperation is anchored on a strong high technology partnership. Israel invests four percent of its gross domestic product in research and development and much of its success as a startup nation is attributed to this. Modi has admired israel’s achievement in making “ the desert bloom.” He has said he is keen to learn from the Israeli startup ecosystem and its incubation centres.  For, innovation is one of the best ways of spurring economic growth. The Indian government has recently set up a task force with the mandate to improve the innovation ecosystem in the country and hold dialogues with startups of other countries.
 
Officials from both the countries say Israel-India cooperation is poised for dramatic boost. In the past, the connections between Israel and India were made by American companies. They came to Israel to buy some technology and then move the production to India. Now there is a realization on both sides that they should come together directly and not through third party. The two nations have set up a $40 million fund to leverage innovation for economic collaboration through jointly developed technologies or joint collaborations. The fund would help Israeli companies participate in large Indian government-led ventures, foster collaboration of Israeli and Indian companies in R&D projects and seek to adapt products developed in Israel for the Indian market.
 
Cooperation in agriculture is the most successful component of the two-way partnership. According to Israeli Ambassador Daniel Carmon, who earlier headed Mashav, Israel’s agency for international development cooperation, there is a plan to set up 25 agricultural research centres across India. These, along with the ones already set up since 2000, would act as platform for technology transfer, aimed at increasing yields, improving quality of produce and introducing new crops.  Israel is also banking on technologies in fields such as drip irrigation, water management and horticulture to boost trade that has hovers around the $5 billion mark. Some movement is expected on the pending Free Trade Agreement for which some nine rounds of negotiations have taken place. It is said to be a "strategic game changer" that would expand the scope and volume of trade two to three times over the next  few years.
 
Another area that is gaining traction is cyber security, with many online businesses lacking the necessary software to protect their systems. According to the IVC business data firm, there are over 200 cyber security companies in Israel. India needs sophisticated technology to protect networks, databases, and enterprise computer systems. The two countries have agreed to a programme to promote joint research on cyber security.
 
But there is more to this visit than the transactional side. Strategically, Israel is glad to have a rising Asian power as an ally. Ahead of Modi’s, Netanyahu has described the visit as an “expression of change” in Israel’s status and a “significant step in strengthening our joint work and strategic partnership.”
 
Modi’s visit is taking place at a time when West Asia is in turmoil again. It is worth recalling here that former National Security Advisor in the previous National Democratic Alliance government, Brajesh Mishra, had suggested an alliance of “democratic societies” which can counter international terrorism in a “holistic and focused manner”. Also, the joint statement issued after the recent Modi-Trump talks said as much when it held that the two countries would have tangible cooperation with partners in West Asia. The matter is expected to figure in the prime ministerial talks as the Ministry of External Affairs statement said that Modi and Netanyahu will discuss “all matters of mutual interests”.
 
In a letter to chief ministers in 1949, first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru explained India’s policy then of not recognizing Israel and stressed that the decision was not a “irrevocable” one  and the issue would be considered afresh in view of subsequent developments. The government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao did just that in 1992 by normalizing relations, moving beyond the back-channel security cooperation. Modi’s bold move is aimed at redefining the relationship in light of the expanded agenda of shared interests and emerging strategic partnership.
 
(The author is a veteran journalist and commentator on strategic affairs and international relations. He can be contacted at sarojmohanty@india.com)
 
 
 
 
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