- - Thursday, February 8, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s state visit to India in January was one of pomp and circumstance, but, more importantly, it underscored the closeness that now characterizes the bilateral relationship.

The rapport that has built up between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Modi has transformed New Delhi’s approach to Tel Aviv since the times it had shunned Israel so as not to disenchant the Muslim community back home, or alienate the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. Only one Israeli prime minister had visited India before Mr. Netanyahu, and that was Ariel Sharon, in 2003, with Mr. Netanyahu himself reciprocating Mr. Modi’s unprecedented visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister six months earlier.

At the start of his six-day tour of New Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, Mr. Netanyahu hailed Mr. Modi as a revolutionary leader, and in his farewell statement termed his visit “historic.” Mr. Modi broke protocol to welcome Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the New Delhi airport.

The first item on Mr. Netyanahu’s trip was to join Mr. Modi at the renamed Teen Murti Haifa Chowk in New Delhi to pay homage to the brave Indian soldiers who laid down their lives a century ago in the Battle of Haifa during the last months of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I.

The two countries signed nine agreements across several sectors to boost bilateral trade and cooperation. Mr. Netanyahu, together with 11-year-old Moshe Holzberg, also visited the now refurbished Chabad House in Mumbai, where the boy’s parents, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who were serving as directors at this Jewish center, were killed along with six others by Pakistani terrorists during the November 2008 attack on the city.

But the primary focus of Mr. Modi and Mr. Netanyahu was partnership, to be pursued in three ways: First, by strengthening the existing pillars of cooperation in the areas of agriculture, science and technology and security. Second, by venturing into less explored areas of cooperation, such as oil and gas, cyber security, film and start-ups. And third, by facilitating the flow of people and ideas between the two countries.

“We are working with Israel to make it easier for our people to work and visit each other’s countries, including for longer work duration,” Mr. Modi said. “To bring people closer on both sides, an Indian Cultural Center will soon open in Israel.” He added that an annual exchange of bilateral visits by 100 young people from science-related educational streams would soon start.

Israel sprang out of the desert 70 years ago, and with a population of 8.5 million has spearheaded agricultural and horticultural cooperation by bringing advanced practices and technology to India, a country of 1.34 billion and one whose Indus Valley civilization had been the cradle of agriculture and animal husbandry more than 5 millennia ago.

Israel enjoys a trade surplus in trade with India that was worth $5 billion in 2016-17. While its GDP totals $297 billion compared to India’s $2.25 trillion, its per capita GDP is $34,800 compared to India’s $6,700. Israel is among the largest defense suppliers to India, alongside the U.S., Russia and France. The world’s largest arms purchaser, India is also Israel’s largest client for arms.

As Mr. Modi was showing the Netanyahus around the Sabarmati Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi — the apostle of non-violence who had hoped a future India would have “the smallest army imaginable” — news came of the reinstatement of India’s $500 million deal with Israel for its Spike anti-tank missiles that New Delhi had cancelled on January 2, just prior to the Israeli prime minister’s visit.

India, which has the second-largest standing army in the world after China, had opted for the Spike, made by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, over the U.S.’ Lockheed Martin/Raytheon Javelin missiles. Mr. Modi reportedly urged Mr. Netanyahu to discount reports of the cancellation, leading the Israeli leader to term the deal “very important” and to add that “there will be many more deals.”

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of India-Israel diplomatic ties that were established with the two countries opening their respective embassies in 1992. India had formally recognized Israel much earlier, on Sept. 17, 1950, and a consulate was opened in Bombay in 1953 more as a facility to cater to the Jewish population in India. Both countries chose “A Growing Partnership” as the motto for the occasion.

Mr. Modi’s state visit to Israel last July had been as path-breaking as it had been high on symbolism. Not only was his visit the first by an Indian prime minister to Israel since its creation in 1948, it clearly de-linked Palestine from India’s equations with the Jewish state even while elevating New Delhi’s ties with Tel Aviv to a “strategic partnership.” However, Mr. Modi reassured visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May that India’s ties with Israel would in no way impinge on its relationship with the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, there has been a clear diplomatic tilt toward Tel Aviv, with Mr. Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government having for the last three successive years abstained from a U.N. resolution against Israel for its alleged war crimes during the 2014 Gaza offensive. India, however, chose not to appear entirely partisan, joining 127 other countries in voting in favor of a U.N. resolution opposing the recent decision of President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. During Mr. Netanyahu’s visit, the two leaders discussed Indian support for the two-state solution, though this was not a central part of their negotiations.

“As we look to the future of this exciting partnership with Israel, I am filled with hope and optimism,” Mr. Modi said during Mr. Netanyahu’s visit. “In Prime Minister Netanyahu, I have a counterpart who is equally committed to taking the India-Israel relationship to soaring new heights.”

Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.

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