Israel and India: A partnership of equals

India's much-anticipated pivot to Israel has been less than smooth, and slow to come.

Indian Army soldiers march during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Indian Army soldiers march during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Amid increasing bilateral trade and improving diplomatic ties, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj embarked on a two-day tour of Israel yesterday. The ministerial trip comes just three months after President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the Jewish State, the first ever by an Indian head of state.
Swaraj’s presence in Israel gains even more significance in light of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much awaited visit, expected to take place this year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also be visiting India in the near future, honoring an invitation extended by President Mukherjee during his visit.
Swaraj is well known in diplomatic and government circles in Jerusalem. She served as the chairperson of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group from 2006-09. A gifted orator and a strongwilled politician, she regards Israeli stateswoman Golda Meir as her role model.
Twenty months ago, as Prime Minister Modi embarked on an ambitious plan to transform the Asian giant, he named Israel as one of the leading cooperation partners for India in the world, besides the United States, Canada, Japan and Singapore. He entrusted Swaraj to engineer India’s pivot to Israel.
Since India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, bilateral trade and cooperation has risen exponentially. In 1990s the trade between India and Israel was pegged at a meager $200 million, by 2014-15 it had crossed $4.5 billion.
Since early 1990s, when prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao (Congress Party) initiated normalization between the two countries, there has been a political consensus between India’s main political blocs, the center-right BJP and socialist-leaning Congress Party, to further improve ties. The recent diplomatic will to do so has been driven by the demands of the technology and business community back home.
However, India’s much-anticipated pivot to Israel has been less than smooth, and slow to come.
Despite the strong political desire to strengthen technological and commercial ties with Israel, India still doesn’t want to lose the congeniality contest in the Arab and Muslim world. The real political considerations of over-dependence on Arab oil and a significant Muslim population at home force India to undertake a meticulous balancing act. Swaraj’s brief stopover in the Palestinian territories before embarking on her official engagements in Israel is seen as an attempt to assure President Mahmoud Abbas of India’s backing for his demands.
Seen as a traditional backer of the “Palestinian cause,” India has managed to change its diplomatic stance since Prime Minister Modi took office. India signaled a significant policy shift by repeatedly abstaining from anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.
Considering India’s foreign policy constraints, the country has come a long way in past two decades and even more so in past two months of Prime Minister Modi’s reign.
Despite the intricacies of statecraft and international diplomacy, there has always been strong support among Indians for the Jewish state since its inception. And these two countries share a lot more with each other than meets the eye.
Both India and Israel gained independence from British colonial rule around the same time and went on to prove themselves robust democracies despite being surrounded by military dictatorships, failed states and theocracies. Both nations faced the trauma of displacement, absorbing huge refugee populations after being partitioned on religious and ethnic lines. Today, both India and Israel are multicultural societies with equal rights for religious minorities.
Free press, independent judiciary and vibrant civil society shape the political and social discourse in both India and Israel. Their societies are fiercely self-critical – a trait rare in their respective neighborhoods.
Nowhere are their government policies scrutinized more intensely and their political class reproached more severely than at home.
Both Israel and India hold the unique distinction of being ancient nations with a young demography.
More than 40 percent of Israeli population is under 25; 50% of Indians are in the same age group. Young men and women in both countries share a passion for entrepreneurship and technological innovation.
Nowhere is the need to connect with Israel felt more in India than within country’s IT and start-up community. Indian entrepreneurs and technology driven companies have come to appreciate the need to connect with Israel. In 2015 alone, leading Indian corporations like Tech-Mahindra, Reliance Industries and Tata Group have made substantial and long-term investments in Israel’s innovation and start-up ecosystem.
India’s private sector involvement in Israel also includes setting up start-up incubators and investments in academic research. Tata Group is the lead investor in Tel Aviv University’s RAMOT, a $20 million technology fund that translates academic research into industry-relevant solutions.
Since the advent of the Information Age, Indian and Israeli professionals have been at the cutting edge of innovation and business in Silicon Valley, San Francisco. What initially started as the brain drain soon created IT hubs back home. Clusters of high-tech industries sprang up around major population centers. The trend witnessed in Silicon Wadi has lot in common with technology-driven success stories unfolding in Bangalore, Delhi or Hyderabad.
This bilateral cooperation does not restrain itself to university campuses or corporate board rooms.
Israel’s agriculture project in India is the Jewish state’s largest engagement anywhere in the world.
In the framework of Indo-Israel Agricultural Project, MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) operates 26 Centers of Excellence in nine different states across India. These agriculture centers act as platforms for transfer of technology to Indian farmers.
If implemented, Israeli expertise in water resource management and cultivation of arid land could be valuable in ensuring India’s future food and water security.
The present diplomatic push can help academic, industrial and start-up ecosystems of both countries to work closer together, and help create technology solutions capable of addressing the emerging challenges of urban development, energy generation, water conservation and food security.
The writer is an Indian journalist based in Germany.