Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to India last month came a year after President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in October 2015. Meanwhile, Home Minister Rajnath Singh (November 2015) and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (January 2016) visited Israel, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to be in the country early next year.
The spurt in high-level political engagements apart, India-Israel relations have been robust with growing cooperation in various areas. No surprise, therefore, that a large delegation of government officials, businessmen and academics was accompanying the Israeli President.
President Rivlin held discussions with Prime Minister Modi followed by signing of an agreement to improve cooperation in the field of agriculture and water resource management. He visited the Centre of Excellence in Agriculture (CEA) in Karnal, Haryana, that has been set up with Israeli assistance, and travelled to Agra where, besides visiting the iconic Taj Mahal, he inspected the ‘Aqwise’ water treatment plant put up by Israel. He, along with President Pranab Mukherjee, also inaugurated the Agro Tech 2016 in Chandigarh.
In one of his media interactions, Rivlin underscored the growing comfort level in bilateral relations, saying: “This is not a friendship we should be hiding.”
India-Israel relations have witnessed significant strides in the past few years with growing defence trade and Israeli willingness to share its technological expertise in various areas, including agriculture, irrigation and water treatment. Counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing add to the bilateral ties.
Yet, India continues to face a dilemma with its support to the Palestinian question. Analysts, however, argue that of late India has toned down criticism of Israeli actions against Palestinians. Since the Modi government came to power in New Delhi, a degree of openness has emerged demonstrating New Delhi’s unapologetic stance over its relations with Israel and support to Palestine.
India’s engagements with Israel, especially in defence trade, have grown steadily over the past decade. It is the third-largest trading partner of Israel in Asia after China and Hong Kong, and defence equipment comprise a significant proportion of Indian imports.
With the coming into power of the Modi government, the possibility of further strengthening of defence trade gained ground. Giving credence to such a possibility, in October 2014, India decided to buy $525 million-worth of missiles and launchers from Israel.
During Rivlin’s visit, India signed contracts with Israel Aerospace Industries to purchase two Phalcon/IL-76 AWACS (airborne warning and control system) and 10 Heron TP UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) worth $1.4 billion. An Israeli proposal to jointly develop Heron UAVs with the Defence Research and Development Organisation in India was also discussed.
Highlighting the possibilities of partnership with Indian industries in defence manufacturing, Rivlin declared that Israel is ready for both ‘Make in India’ and ‘make with India’. Further, there has been growing cooperation between them in counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing. The two share similar views with an uncompromising attitude towards any form of terrorism.
Addressing a gathering of the Jewish community, he said “Indians are no strangers to the threat and to the reality of modern global terrorism”, adding that Indian and Israeli values of “democracy and freedom are strong, and we are defending (them) with all our might”.
The highlight of the visit was the focus on cooperation in areas of science and technology, agriculture and water management. Israeli technology has been used to improve the irrigation system in arid regions in Rajasthan and Haryana while it has also set up CEAs in 12 locations across six Indian States — Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu – under the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project.
Further, Israel has offered to invest in river-cleaning and water treatment projects. Signifying the thrust on cooperation in science and technology and agriculture, Rivlin tweeted before leaving for India: “Filled with pride as I depart for a state visit to India to see how Israeli innovation is improving the lives of millions.”
Bilateral relations have come a long way and are set to flourish with Israeli willingness to share technology and invest in India’s development projects. India’s search for a reliable source of technology to improve its defence and agriculture sectors finds a willing partner in Israel. As India and Israel prepare to complete 25 years of establishment of diplomatic relations, the growing warmth in bilateral ties can hardly be missed.
(The author is Associate Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor/ www.southasiamonitor.org)