Narendra Modi is set to become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel
Analysts say the trip marks India's diplomatic tilt towards Israel
Only a select few world leaders receive Israel’s grand reception at Ben Gurion International Airport: people like the President of the United States, and the Pope. So it did not go unnoticed that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the same red carpet treatment.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet were on the tarmac to greet Modi as he exited his Air India Boeing 747 in Tel Aviv.
Modi returned the gesture in trademark style.
“Netanyahu received Prime Minister Modi’s hugging diplomacy,” says Eliaz Dandeker, a historian and researcher of the Jewish-Indian community. “It was warm, like a couple of old friends that came together after so many years.”
The two countries aim to further that embrace in terms of economic, cultural and security ties. The trip marks the first visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister after 25 years of diplomatic relations. Many analysts see the visit as a clear diplomatic tilt toward Israel after years of India keeping its distance.
“Since 1992 there has been a growing relationship between Israel and India but it was under Prime Minister Modi that the relationship has really blossomed,” Ambassador Dore Gold, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry told CNN.
The three-day trip covers the breadth of Israeli industry from agricultural and water management to tech startups and commerce.
Netanyahu has ushered his Indian guest to meetings with business leaders and students from the two countries, and established an India-Israel CEO forum to create a hub for trade and commerce.
Seven major agreements have been signed, dealing with water, agriculture and space technology. The two countries have also created a $40 million dollar research and development fund for joint innovation.
“Israel is among the leading nations in the fields of innovation, water, and agriculture technologies - these are also among the priority areas in India’s development,” Modi told reporters, as he stood next to Netanyahu.
“We are making history together,” Netanyahu said. “I have a feeling that India and Israel are changing our world.”
Netanyahu quipped that Hebrew and Hindi are the two main languages in Silicon Valley, the United States’ high-tech hub, which made their two countries natural partners.
A partnership that has seen bilateral trade grow exponentially from $200 million in 1992 to $4.16 billion last year.
“We lead in robotics, precision agriculture, and everything having to do with water, dairy farming, drones, machine learning,” says Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, a platform for investors to provide venture capital funding for startups. “And as India modernizes in terms of moving ahead on digital payments and e-gov, Israel becomes a very strategic partner for India.”
One of the crucial meetings for Modi and Netanyahu will be with members of India’s Jewish diaspora, a community of more than 80 thousand Jews now living in Israel who can trace their roots back to the subcontinent. Dandeker, a fourth-generation immigrant, eagerly views the potential of future cooperation.
“Our connections are making more opportunities between the two countries,” Dandeker said. “We hope both leaders seize the broad connections created by the diaspora community.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Modi and Netanyahu reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate in areas of defense and security. Israel provided arms to India even before the establishment of diplomatic relations. Today, about 40 percent of Israel’s defense exports go to India making Israel its third largest defense supplier Medved told CNN.
The Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) announced a deal worth nearly $2 billion in April making it the largest defense contract in Israel’s history. The package provides sophisticated air and missile defense systems to the Indian army.
Israeli weapons will bolster India’s armed forces against the country’s main geopolitical rival Pakistan. But they could also be used against China, another of India’s rivals, though one which Israel is currently courting for investment.
“Israel isn’t the only country that seeks to have good relations with both Asian powers,” says Gold. “This is a challenge that many countries experience; it is what diplomacy is all about.”
Part of the defense cooperation will center on terrorism. Both countries affirmed their commitments to working together.
“We also recognize that we are being challenged. We are being challenged by the forces of terror, the forces of terror that seeks to undermine our world, our countries, the peace and stability of our common civilization and we have agreed to cooperate in this area as well,” Netanyahu stated.
Gold believes ISIS’ expansion provides an opportunity to deepen security cooperation.
“What we are seeing is that Israel facing challenges from organizations like ISIS that has branches all across Asia to the Philippines. The challenges to India are also worldwide. So when these two countries face global challenges, cooperation is very desirable.”
While in Israel, Prime Minister Modi visited a victim of terror, Moshe Holtzberg, whose parents were killed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. They parents had traveled to India five years prior to service the city’s small Jewish community and Israeli visitors. Moshe, who was 2-years-old at the time, was saved by his Indian nanny. Modi embraced the boy and invited him to India.
Noticeably missing from this trip was a meeting with the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority (PA) Deputy Foreign Minister Tayseer Jaradat told CNN that the PA is upset with Indian Prime Minister Modi.
“We would prefer it if the prime minister of an important country, like India, who is visiting the region, should also visit Palestine when he visits Israel,” Jaradat told CNN.
The Palestinian frustration with India started more than a year ago when India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote, which shocked the Palestinians. Historically, India was one of the main supporters of the Palestinian political movement.
According to Jaradat, the Palestinians feel that India has decided to enhance its cooperative relationship with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
In an interview with the Times of Israel, Indian Ambassador to Israel, Pavan Kapoor, said, “It’s our sense of confidence that we can deal with both relationships independently and on their own merits. We don’t see the need to hyphenate them.”
In May, Modi hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a state dinner in New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister reaffirmed the country’s commitment to a two state solution and the Palestinian cause.
“We will continue to work with the Palestinians because we do support their cause. But at the same time we want to keep our relations with Israel independent of their relationship with Palestine,” Kapoor added.