Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Indian has been marked with bonhomie, euphoria and hyperbole with Netanyahu describing the ties as a “marriage made in heaven but consecrated on earth” – a phrase that he has used earlier for ties with other friendly countries like China.
The six-day high-voltage tour, the first by an Israeli Prime Minister since Ariel Sharon’s visit in September 2003, is a significant boost for Indo-Israeli ties. It takes place just six months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark visit to Israel in July last year, which was the first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister. Both visits have taken place in the 25th year of establishing of diplomatic relations.
India-Israel ties have grown in this period as Israel became a major defence supplier to India, later widening the cooperation to trade in diamonds, agriculture, water conservation and innovation. As a leading global innovator, Israel has much that is of interest to India. The frequent exchange of high level visits has built up a sense of excitement about the ties and raised the Israeli profile in India.
Though Israel and India have many areas in which they can collaborate and share a similarity of views on several issues of importance, there are also significant areas of divergence such as Palestine and the role of Iran in the region. Both sides have tried to put behind them vexatious issues like India’s vote at the UN supporting a resolution critical of US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and India cancelling a deal for the multi-million dollar Spike anti-tank missile.
Over the years, India has maintained a balance in its ties with Israel and Palestine. While ties with Israel have blossomed, India has a long tradition of support to the Palestinian cause. The West Asian region is of immense importance to India; it is India’s main source of energy supplies, an important trade partner and more importantly, a 7-million strong Indian expatriate community based in the Gulf that is a major source of inward remittances. Modi has also undertaken an important outreach to countries in the Gulf and also signing the strategically significant Chabahar port project with Iran.
Ever since India established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, Indian leaders have followed a pragmatic policy of growing ties with Israel while maintaining the warm relations with Palestine. Modi dehyphenated ties with Israel and Palestine by announcing plans to visit Israel within months of forming the government in May 2014. During his Israel tour Modi did not visit Ramallah, where the Palestine administration is located, but is now likely to visit Palestine next month during a visit to the Gulf region.
Modi and Bibi (as Modi referred to Netanyahu) have talked of a new era in Indo-Israeli relations. Though political ties and cooperation in other areas have grown, Indo-Israeli trade requires a push. India-Israel trade sans defence purchases is at $4.1billion. India is Israel’s third largest trade partner but the trade figures which are weighted in Israel’s favour do not match the glow of their political ties, especially as a little over half of it is trade in diamonds. Defence supplies from Israel are outright purchases without transfer of technology, making India one of the largest export markets for Israel. During the visit, Modi urged Israel to take advantage of India’s liberalised FDI policies in the defence sector to ‘Make in India’.
The Israeli PM was accompanied by a trade delegation of 130 business leaders. But asked about ways of enhancing the bilateral economic ties, Netanyahu could only suggest a bilateral investment treaty and a free trade agreement. Though Israel is keen to begin talks on a trade agreement, New Delhi has not responded as yet. If Israel complains about high tariffs, Indian businessmen have difficulties with Israeli visas.
Nine agreements were signed during the visit on cyber-security, air transport, film production, hydrocarbons, while the $ 40 million India-Israel Technological Fund announced during Modi’s visit last year was launched by the two prime ministers.
Netanyahu made a major pitch to Bollywood to come and make films in Israel in the expectation that a blockbuster movie showing the scenic attractions of Israel would bring in vast numbers of Indian tourists. A delegation from the Mumbai film world visited Israel last year at the invitation of the Israeli government to look at business opportunities. Indian films being shot in Israel have greater significance at a time when Israel is severely discomfited by Boycott Israel movement with celebrities from around the world refusing to go to Israel to perform. At a time when more and more friendly countries are becoming openly critical of Israeli policies on Palestinians, a high profile relationship with India boosts Netanyahu’s image, at home and abroad, beset as he is with controversies back home.