Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a historic visit to India to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between the two nations. The formal relationship only began in 1992 with the end of the Cold War, but today it is flourishing with trade and investment estimated to be around US$5 billion annually. The two countries are cooperating on a range of issues including trade, defence, tourism, agriculture and water technologies. It is the first visit by an Israeli PM to India since Ariel Sharon’s visit 15 years ago.
During this visit, India and Israel have signed nine agreements including Memorandums of Understanding in the fields of gas, oil, renewable energy and cyber security. In addition, agreements were signed for a joint industrial research and development deal and an update to an aviation agreement, as were agreements in health and space exploration. A free trade agreement (FTA) is reportedly being negotiated, which could increase annual trade to around $15 billion.
The trip builds upon the diplomatic achievements made when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel around six months ago – the first visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister. Agreements signed between Israel and India in 2017 include the India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund, a five-year, US$40 million fund, which will be used to encourage partnerships between Israeli and Indian innovators, as well as the “India-Israel Innovation Bridge” a platform for Israeli and Indian entrepreneurs and startups to collaborate on innovative projects related to water, agriculture, and health.
The current visit is intended to focus on expanding business relations, with the Israeli PM’s entourage including around 130 Israeli businesspeople representing some 100 companies. While Israel and India have a growing trade relationship, some believe it only scratches the surface of what could be achieved, as Israeli exports to India are only around 3 percent of Israel’s total exports. As India has one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, greater cooperation with Israel’s booming start up scene would likely bring significant mutual benefits.
The personal friendship between Modi and Netanyahu has helped steer the diplomatic relationship forward. Both leaders view their nations as having common values and challenges – modern democracies that draw upon historical traditions and face common challenges including terrorism and undemocratic neighbours. Moreover, the political relationship has strengthened since Modi’s Bharatiya Janara Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, as the BJP has sought to strengthen ties with Israel.
Netanyahu said that the visit “heralds the flourishing of our friendship,” and added, “We are ushering today a new era in our relations. We’ve had diplomatic relations for 25 years but something different is happening now because of your leadership and because of our partnership. There are three things that bind our countries together: The first is that we have an ancient past. The second is that we have a vibrant present. And the third is that we are seizing together a promising future.”
Moreover, addressing the Raisina Dialogue, Netanyahu spoke of their common challenges:
“Our way of life is being challenged. Most notably, the quest for modernity, the quest for innovation is being challenged by radical Islam and its terrorist offshoots from a variety of corners, and this can upset the international system. I think that one of the ways to overcome such a challenge is to strengthen the relationship between our two great democracies. The alliance of democracies I think is important to secure our common future. I believe that the possibilities are endless. We have discussed in this visit how we can strengthen our two nations in the civilian areas, in the security areas, in every area. It is something l look forward to do.”
Today, Israel is one of the largest military suppliers to India. Israel exports an average of $1 billion of military equipment each year to India. However, on a sour note late last year India decided to cancel a $500 million deal with Israeli arms manufacturer Rafael for Spike anti-tank missiles. Netanyahu told India Today that he is seeking to resolve this issue and find an “equitable solution”, and on Wednesday he annouced that the deal is back on the table. Moreover, the defence relationship reaches beyond arms trade to include counter-terrorism, cyber security, homeland security, border management and intelligence sharing, as well as cooperation with air forces and navies.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, India has generally attempted to remain neutral while supporting a two-state outcome. However, in recent years it appears that India is attempting to treat its relationship with Israel as separate to its relationship with the Palestinians. India has also changed its voting pattern at the UN to occasionally abstain on Palestinian-sponsored resolutions, rather than join the automatic majority against Israel.
However, in December India voted in favour of the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Commenting on India’s vote, Netanyahu said, “Naturally I am disappointed but I think this visit is a testament to the fact that our relationship is moving forward on so many fronts.”
Despite what Netanyahu has called a “marriage made in heaven”, there are areas of disagreement between the two nations, including India’s trade with Iran. However, Israel is not letting these issues distract from its growing friendship.
On Thursday the Israeli PM will also visit the Chabad-run Jewish centre that was targeted in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and unveil a memorial to 166 people killed in the Mumbai attacks. Netanyahu is accompanied by 11-year-old Moshe Holtzberg, whose parents – Rabbi Gabriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah, were killed in the attack on the Jewish centre. Moshe was two years-old at the time of the attack and was saved by his Indian nanny who received Israeli citizenship. There will also be a special memorial for Moshe’s parents, who dedicated their lives to establishing the Chabad centre.
As Sreeram Chaulia, Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat India, writes in the Jerusalem Post, “Netanyahu is bringing along to India a 11-year-old Jewish boy whose parents were mercilessly killed by Pakistani terrorists in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is a poignant sight loaded with symbolism and a reminder to the world that Israel and India are coordinating at the level of intelligence agencies and military training to fight the jihadist scourge. In fields like counter-radicalism, border management and cyber security, Tel Aviv and New Delhi are bosom friends for life. The sentiment is emotional in these spheres since both countries are motivated by a feeling of common victimhood. Had Israel and India limited their exchanges to a purely transactional level, they would not have attained the present heightened equilibrium. Theirs is a bond to cherish and nurture.”
The relationship between Israel and India is truly special, and it has become much more than diplomatic, it is one of friendship between its leaders and its people. This trip will no doubt continue to deepen the relationship and take it to new heights.