How Israel made friends in India

Israel’s bottom-up diplomacy has paid off.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tour Dor Beach on the third day of Modi's visit to Israel‏ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tour Dor Beach on the third day of Modi's visit to Israel‏
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The recent award of a $777-million contract to Israel Aerospace Industries for the supply of air and missile defense systems to the Indian Navy has re-emphasized how India-Israel relations have evolved in the last two and a half decades. From outright hostility at the time of independence seven decades ago to a strategic partnership today, the bilateral has come a long way.
That this has been possible in part because of robust defense cooperation between New Delhi and Jerusalem is well-know but what is less acknowledged is the importance of cooperation with Indian States, in fields such as agriculture and water-management. So while the IAI deal made international headlines, the Israel tour of the chief minister of one of India’s most prosperous States, Punjab, went under the radar. During his five-day visit from October 21-25, Capt. Amarinder Singh toured the NaanDanJain agricultural facility, the Dan Region wastewater treatment plant, the Afikim dairy farm, and met with President Reuven Rivlin. Earlier in the year, his counterparts from the States of Gujarat and Haryana also visited Israel, and agriculture featured prominently on both their agendas.
This decentralized strategy of partnering with different political and private players including State governments, through cooperation in agriculture and allied fields, has long been an integral part of Israeli diplomacy in India – especially in the early years when Jerusalem had few friends in New Delhi.
For example, in 1949, Israel favorably considered India’s request for assistance in agriculture even as India refused to recognize the Jewish State and opposed its UN membership. Israel’s Histadrut maintained ties with India’s labor leaders, many of whom visited the Jewish State. In 1960, two large Indian delegations – one comprising land reforms activists from the Bhoodan movement, and another comprising young farmers – visited Israel. In 1970, India’s leading agriculturist Appasaheb Pawar lived in Israel for months, studying new agro-tech. His brother, Sharad Pawar – who would later serve three terms as Maharashtra chief minister and two as Union Minister – also played an important role in building agri-ties between the two countries.
This decentralized approach to diplomacy continued even after India and Israel established diplomatic ties in 1992. A significant development in itself, it, however, did not translate into policy shifts on the ground. Delhi issued a curt official statement and kept the new bilateral on a low profile. Left-wing parties opposed diplomatic ties and argued that India should have waited till Palestinian statehood had been achieved.
However, the normalization of India-Israel ties coincided with the liberalization of the Indian economy – and States were now empowered to work with foreign governments to bring in economic investment. Israeli diplomats seized the opportunity. Often ignored in the power corridors of Delhi, they sought to build durable partnerships in state capitals.
A slew of chief ministerial visits to Israel, from across party lines, followed--starting with Gujarat’s Chimanbhai Patel (Congress) in 1992, then Maharashtra’s Sharad Pawar (Nationalist Congress Party), who led an 800-member strong delegation to the agritech conference in 1993, then Rajasthan’s Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (Bharatiya Janata Party) in 1994, and Karnataka’s Deve Gowda (Janata Dal-Secular) in 1995.
In 1996, Deve Gowda became Prime Minister and, within six months, hosted President Ezer Weizman in Delhi – even though his own party had opposed normalization. Gowda and Weizman signed four agreements, including one to set up a model farm at India’s premier agriculture research institute near Delhi. By this time, Israeli firms had also begun to build a profile in India – Tahal was working on water management in Gujarat and Rajasthan while Netafim had a joint venture with an Indian firm that it had been doing business with even before 1992. Both Israeli companies now have a pan-India presence.
The bilateral grew stronger with the pro-Israel BJP coming to the helm in Delhi in 1998. In 2000, West Bengal’s Jyoti Basu, a Communist party veteran, broke taboo and visited Israel with a large business delegation. This was a big win but it was derailed by the Second Intifada. Still, Prime Minister AB Vajpayee hosted Ariel Sharon in 2003, indicating a qualitative improvement in bilateral ties.
This was again taken down a notch when the Congress party returned to power in 2004 and rolled back public engagement. However, bilateral trade in general and cooperation in agriculture in particular continued to grow. In 2007, Israel’s NaanDan joined with India’s Jain Irrigation Systems to form NaanDanJain which now provides irrigation solutions across 100 countries. In 2008, the flagship Indo-Israel Agriculture Project was established. Jointly implemented by the India’s horticulture mission and Israel’s MASHAV, it now has more than 15 agricultural centers across nine Indians states.
When the BJP returned to power in 2014, the pro-Israel Prime Minister Narendra Modi was able to build on decades of quiet but effective diplomacy that had already delivered tangible benefits. Modi himself was chief minister of Gujarat for 14 years, during which time his state developed a close partnership with Israel. When he became Prime Minister, few other diplomats had the kind of access to him as the Israeli Ambassador in New Delhi.
Israel’s bottom-up diplomacy has paid off. By focusing on agriculture and water management, instead of, say, lobbying to change India’s foreign policy perspectives, Israel had shifted the core of its India’s policy from a politically-charged single issue (the Palestinian cause) to a much wider non-political grassroots platform. This is not to suggest that cooperation in other areas, particularly defense, was not important – it was and is. But defense cooperation is also inherently susceptible to secrecy and negative opinion, which can be challenging for public diplomacy. In contrast, agricultural cooperation at the state level, allowed Israel to accrue the goodwill of the people, make friends across the ideological spectrum, and shield the bilateral from political upheavals.
Mayuri Mukherjee is an India-based foreign policy analyst.