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Why Modi’s Israel Visit Signals The Dawn Of A New Era

A strategic partnership indeed.

12/07/2017 12:39 PM IST | Updated 12/07/2017 12:39 PM IST
POOL New / Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's state visit to Israel from 4 to 6 July was as path-breaking as it was high on symbolism. Not only was his visit the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel since its creation in 1948, it clearly delinked Palestine from India's equations with the Jewish state even while elevating New Delhi's ties with Tel Aviv to a "strategic partnership."

Modi had reassured visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May that India's ties with Israel will in no way impinge on its relationship with the State of Palestine. There has nevertheless been a clear diplomatic tilt towards Tel Aviv. Modi's rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has for the last three successive years abstained from a UN resolution against Israel for its alleged war crimes during the 2014 Gaza offensive.

The protocol-breaking welcome Modi received in Israel reaffirmed not only the ready rapport he enjoys with Netanyahu, but laid the foundations for an abiding alliance between the two countries.

India, especially when ruled by the Indian National Congress, had historically been a key supporter of the Palestinian cause, but BJP-led governments have had overtly closer ties with Israel that have today flowered into areas ranging from defence, counter-terrorism and homeland security to water, agriculture, education, diamonds, IT, and science and technology.

The enthusiastic protocol-breaking welcome Modi received in Israel reaffirmed not only the ready rapport he enjoys with his counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, but laid the foundations for an abiding alliance between the two countries and upheld their desire to work closely together. Indeed, Netanyahu described the friendship between the two countries as "a marriage made in heaven, but we are implementing it here on earth." As he and his entire Cabinet broke protocol to receive Modi at the Ben Gurion airport, Netanyahu told him in Hindi, "Aapka swagat hai, mere dost" (welcome, my friend). Modi too referred to Netanyahu by his pet name "Bibi."

In effect, Israel accorded the Indian Prime Minister the same stature as it does the US President and the Pope on their official visits to the country, while Netanyahu personally took time out to escort Modi to almost all his engagements over the three days.

In their back-to-back meetings over four hours, Modi and Netanyahu pledged to work together to protect their key interests and combat military threats and terrorism, as both India and Israel are in "complex geographies" and face "strategic threats" to regional peace and stability.

Israel is a sliver of a country of 8.4 million that emerged seven decades ago in a sand-strewn terrain engulfed by a hostile neighbourhood that has precipitated eight wars alongside an ominous deadlock with the Palestinians. Sub-continental India is flanked by adversarial Pakistan and its ally China and has, since its Independence from the British in 1947, waged war with Pakistan in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999, and in 1962 with China. It continues to suffer cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and increasingly alarming subversion from Beijing.

Modi and Netanyahu pledged to work together to protect their key interests and combat military threats and terrorism, as both India and Israel are in "complex geographies" and face "strategic threats."

Modi's visit also deepened the two-way commercial links, with the signing by Indian and Israeli companies of a dozen investment agreements worth $4.3 billion at the maiden CEO Forum meeting in Tel Aviv. There was also a consensus that the current trade volume has the potential to reach $20 billion in the next five years.

Curiously, despite the talk of equal and strategic partnership, Israel—with a size and population about 0.6% of India's—has remained far the senior of the two sides. Even discounting its $1 billion worth of average yearly military sales to India, it enjoys a trade surplus, exporting goods worth $2.4 billion to India, while importing only $1.76 billion of merchandise in the bilateral trade of $4.16 billion (for 2016). Measuring 20,770 sq km, Israel is about as big, or small, as the 21,081 sq km-Mizoram, one of India's 29 states. Its GDP of $297 billion is overshadowed by India's $2.25 trillion, but more than makes up with a GDP per capita of $34,800 to India's $6,700.

As with his visit to the US on 25-26 June, Modi avoided announcing any defence programmes during his Israeli visit so as not to detract from the other bilateral deals that were concluded. The US and Israel, together with Russia and France, are the largest suppliers of military equipment to India, which is incidentally the world's largest arms purchaser. India is also Israel's biggest arms market, having purchased 41% of its export between 2012 and 2016.

However, announcements of major defence deals with both Israel and the US are expected at a later stage, with a record value of deals being finalised with Israel in the current year. These may include the nearly $1 billion purchase of 8,000 Spike fourth generation anti-tank guided missiles, developed and designed by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.Other contracts involve one of $1 billion for two additional Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS)—the Indian Air Force already flies three of these—from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and a $400 million purchase of 10 weaponised Heron TP unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

Modi emphasised, "Our goal is to build a relationship that reflects our shared priorities and draws on enduring bonds between our peoples."

Israel also netted its largest ever defence contract when IAI was awarded contracts totalling almost $2 billion by India in April. IAI will supply the Indian Army medium range-surface to air missile (MR-SAM) air and missile defence systems and additionally a long range-SAM (LR-SAM) air and missile defence system for India's first indigenous aircraft carrier, Vikrant. IAI subsidiary ELTA Systems has also supplied an Integrated Underwater Harbour Defence and Surveillance System (IUHDSS) that was commissioned at the Mumbai-based Western Naval Command in February for enhancing Mumbai's harbour defence and security.

Both countries are proceeding beyond a vendor-buyer relationship by promoting joint ventures in India for customised design and production, and with Israel lending its technologies and know-how to India's critical sectors like food security, water management and efficiency, space, cyberspace and data protection, e-learning and innovation, and digitalisation.

After the wide-ranging talks, the two sides agreed to set up a $40 million industrial R&D and technical innovation fund, and also signed seven pacts to expand cooperation in key sectors. These included agreements on a national campaign for water conservation and for water utility reforms in India, a three-year development cooperation programme in agriculture, and for cooperation in atomic clocks and in GEO-LEO (geostationary and low earth orbits) optical link, as also in electric propulsion for small satellites.

Modi emphasised, "Our goal is to build a relationship that reflects our shared priorities and draws on enduring bonds between our peoples."

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