Volume 21 Issue 9 September 2017


For three days this year, from the 4th to the 6th of July, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi visited Israel. Except that it lacked the pomp of a state visit, the event was in every respect historic, as Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in the 70 years since his country became independent.

Modi himself claimed that his visit “marks a path breaking journey of engagement.” And he proved it with India’s drastic policy shift with regard to the Palestine Authority. With one stroke, Modi upended the policy followed by India for 70 years, by avoiding a customary visit to Ramallah, seat of the Palestine Authority.

There was an overflow of welcoming sentiments. Netanyahu received Modi at the Ben Gurion Airport, warmly embraced him and said in Hindi: “Aapka swagat hai mere dost.” Later, he took his guest around on a sightseeing tour.

Modi acknowledged the welcome he received from the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, saying in a tweet; “The President of Israel welcomed me so warmly, he broke protocol. This is a mark of respect for the people of India.”

Benjamin Netanyahu called Modi’s visit ground-breaking and said that he sees ‘history in making’ in their talks. India and Israel signed seven agreements in key areas like space, water management, energy and agriculture. A memorandum of understanding was signed to set up a $40 million worth India-Israel Industrial Research and Development (R&D) and Technical Innovation Fund.

Two agreements were signed in the sector to increase cooperation on water conservation and state water utility reform in India. Both countries also agreed for India-Israel Development Cooperation, a three year work programme in the agriculture sector. They also launched a five-year technology fund.

Modi addressed the Indian community in Israel at the Tel Aviv Convention Centre. During the meeting he promised direct flights connecting the two countries. He also announced that an Indian Cultural Centre would be set up in Israel and invited Israeli companies to come and participate in the ‘Make in India’ initiative of the government.

The two leaders made a joint statement on varied fields like terrorism, technology and defence. On the developments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, the leaders reaffirmed their support for an early negotiated solution based on mutual recognition and security arrangements.

At the back of the new found camaraderie, however, is Israel’s need for a market for its arms. And India is now its biggest buyer. New Delhi, the world’s second-largest developing-world arms buyer, is currently sourcing $1 billion worth of weapons systems from Israel on an average, which is a major leap from the 1990s.

Israel became India’s third-highest arms supplier at the turn of the millennium and by 2016-2017, according to one report, it rose to the top spot, outstripping the US and Russia. Business Standard reported in April that Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has bagged contracts from India worth “almost $2 billion (Rs 13,000 crore)” for missile defence systems that includes medium range surface-to-air missiles (MR-SAM) and long range (LR-SAM) anti-ship missile defence systems (better known as Barak 8). Israel is ready to give armed drones which New Delhi really wanted and Washington did not give.

Modi’s visit, therefore, is also an acknowledgement of the fact that Israel has been more willing to transfer latest technological development in the world of weapons systems to India than either Russia or the US. The Economic Times had reported in April this year that India is slated to get its first armed drones — the Heron TP — that may aid in cross-border strikes. Tel Aviv is even ready to shift production lines to India to match Modi’s Make in India initiative.

However, it appears that both countries are trying to frame their burgeoning relationship away from defence into non-security areas such as water conservation, irrigation techniques, higher education, science and technology, transfer of expertise in areas of IT, machinery and transport equipment, among others. The attempt to publicly share the breadth and depth of Indo-Israeli ties is noticeable from both ends.

It wasn’t until BJP’s comprehensive mandate in 2014, though, that a government at the centre found political confidence in taking the ties out of the closet. The NDA government obviously feels that the time is ripe to strengthen ties in other areas where India can benefit from Israeli expertise and technological advancement but this advancement isn’t possible in a situation of restrained recognition.

That is principally why India is eager to engage in a very public courtship of Israel, even to Israel’s pleasant surprise, which sees in Modi’s visit a tacit approval of its hardened approach towards the Palestinian conflict.

However, though both nations are laying a lot of emphasis in areas of mutual interest such as water conservation, there are challenges and politically tricky factors for Modi to consider.

For instance, experts such as Ashok Gulati and Gayathri Mohan from Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, writing in the Indian Express, have noted that India’s rapid descent towards water scarcity can be arrested by coordinating with Israel who has a meagre per capita availability of less than 200 cum yet “exports high-value agri-produce to Europe and many other parts of the world” and is known for “innovations in water management, drip irrigation, recycling of urban wastewater for use in agriculture or desalinization of seawater for drinking.”

As the authors note, India has about nine million hectares under micro-irrigation but this number needs to go up substantially. Though it seems a dream fit, but Indian realities are different. Lack of political will in initiating land reforms or putting a price tag to a precious, diminishing commodity such as potable water, has made things difficult.

As Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Senior Fellow Abhijit Iyer-Mitra writes in Business Standard, India lacks the resources to meet energy-guzzling desalination plants or a proper technique to deal with their high-salt discharge. Indian irrigable land holdings are fragmented and may not be suitable for Israeli drip irrigation systems. Even if these problems met with a solution, India hardly has the structural capability to tackle the increase in crop produce.

Modi’s Israel visit was, no doubt, a landmark event, not only with regard to the benefits accruing to India from the several agreements, but also from the new strategic partnership between India and Israel.

Because, it is America's staunchest ally and one who has huge bipartisan influence in Capitol Hill, a close synergy with Israel, completes the picture of a US-Israel-India axis alignment.

The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of Southasia.


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