Narendra Modi's Israel visit: What lies behind PM's landmark move to flaunt bilateral ties

A question that is central to Narendra Modi's landmark visit to Israel is, what has prompted the recent boldness? And under what parameters will this relationship be defined?

Though there will understandably be a lot of focus on defence ties and arms procurement when the prime minister lands in Israel on Tuesday — these ensure glossy headlines — the items on agenda point to the formal recognition of an organic, multi-dimensional growth of ties. There are also some significant political and economic challenges that Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu need to solve.

In terms of dovetailing of interests, there is hardly a better country for India than Israel. Both nations face sustained threats from Islamist terrorism, have common interests in areas of cyber-security, and while Israel needs a market for its arms, India has grown to become its biggest buyer with a voracious appetite for more. New Delhi, the world's second-largest developing-world arms buyer, is currently sourcing $1 billion worth of weapons systems from Israel on an average — a major uptick from the 1990s.

Israel became India's third-highest arms supplier at the turn of the millennium and by 2016-2017, according to at least one report, it rose to the top spot pipping the US and Russia. Business Standard reported in April that Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has bagged contracts from India worth "almost $2 billion (Rs 13,000 crore)" for missile defence systems that includes medium range surface-to-air missiles (MR-SAM) and long range (LR-SAM) anti-ship missile defence systems (better known as Barak 8).

File image of Narendra Modi. AFP

File image of Narendra Modi. AFP

Missile systems are a constantly evolving field. Water-skimming anti-ship missiles (ASM) such as Harpoon and Exocet pose a grave danger for warships. Developed jointly with India's Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), the LR-SAMs are meant to specifically neutralise the danger posed by these cutting-edge ASMs and all sorts of other subsonic and supersonic aerial targets.

According to a Global Security report, the navy will equip INS Kolkata, INS Kochi, and INS Chennai guided missile destroyers with the Barak 8 for air and missile defense. Even among the highly competitive world of arms deals, seller-nations frequently place deals within a strategic framework. The US, for instance, is ready to give 22 unarmed Guardian drones to India for maritime surveillance and while it represents an institutionalisation of its bilateral tie with India as a major defence partner, Washington wasn't ready to give that which New Delhi really wanted: Armed drones. Israel is.

Modi's visit (the first by an Indian prime minister), therefore, is also an acknowledgement of the fact that Israel has been more willing to transfer latest technological development in the world of weapons systems to India than either Russia or the US.

The Economic Times had reported in April this year that India is slated to get its first armed drones — The Heron TP — that may aid in cross-border strikes and can also detect, track and take down targets with air to ground missiles. According to the report, Israel had offered the system to India in 2012, but the UPA-2 dilly-dallied on the deal. What’s more, Tel Aviv is ready to shift production lines to India to match Modi's Make in India initiative.

Interestingly, both countries are trying to frame their burgeoning relationship away from defence into non-security areas such as water conservation, irrigation techniques, higher education, science and technology, transfer of expertise in areas of IT, machinery and transport equipment among others. The attempt to publicly share the breadth and depth of bilateral ties is noticeable from both ends.

On Sunday, Indian Ambassador to Israel Pavan Kapoor told The Indian Express that the "formal coming out of the relationship" would be anchored by cooperation in areas of agriculture, water, science and technology, and innovation.

In Tel Aviv, reports Hindustan Times, Israeli cabinet passed a resolution on Sunday to develop a partnership with India on water management, agriculture, space, health, investment and even Bollywood, an acknowledgment of India's soft power.

There is a good reason why both countries are trying to show that there is more to the relationship than just cannons and drones. The dynamics of Indo-Israeli partnership has historically been defined in terms of defence and security because India has always suffered from a moral dichotomy in cozying up publicly to Israel — given its large Muslim minority, the huge expatriate community in the Gulf and its dependence on Arab oil.

It was thought that keeping ties with Israel under the hood would be domestically and geo-politically expedient. This approach created a perverse mechanism. Both countries share a deep civilisational, cultural and people-to-people bond, has a shared history that dates back several thousand years, are dominated by faiths (Hinduism and Judaism) that have remarkable similarity in their basic tenets and yet, due to India's compulsions in balancing its West Asia policy, Israel was treated more as a 'mistress'.

It wasn't until BJP's comprehensive mandate in 2014, though, that a government at the Centre found political confidence in taking the ties out of closet. That fact that Modi is visiting Israel without a customary visit to Ramallah — Palestinian seat of power — points to the altered political realities in India. The NDA government obviously feels that the time is ripe to strengthen the ties in a host of other areas where India can benefit from Israeli expertise and technological advancement but this advancement isn’t possible under the paradigm of restrained recognition.

This is the biggest reason why India, more than Israel, is now ready to engage in a very public courtship. The development has obviously caught Israel by pleasant surprise which sees in Modi's visit a tacit approval of its hardened approach towards the Palestinian conflict. It has been certainly selling it that way to its domestic constituency.

There are also myriad challenges, however. Though both nations are laying a lot of emphasis in areas of mutual interest such as water conservation, there are politically tricky factors for Modi to consider.

As has been noted by experts such as Ashok Gulati and Gayathri Mohan from Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in their piece for The Indian Express, India's rapid descent towards water scarcity (we now have annual per capita availability of water at less than 1,500 cubic metres) can be arrested by coordinating with Israel who have a meager per capita availability of less than 200 cum yet "exports high-value agri-produce to Europe and many other parts of the world" and is known for "innovations in water management, drip irrigation, recycling of urban wastewater for use in agriculture or desalinisation of seawater for drinking."

As the authors note, India has about nine million hectares under micro-irrigation but this number needs to go up substantially. Though it seems a dream fit, Indian realities are different. Lack of political will in initiating land reforms or putting a price tag to a precious, diminishing commodity such as potable water, however, have made things difficult.

As Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Senior Fellow Abhijit Iyer-Mitra writes in Business Standard, India lacks the resources to meet energy-guzzling desalination plants or a proper technique to deal with their high-salt discharge. Indian irrigable land holdings are fragmented and may not be suitable for Israeli drip irrigation systems. Even if these problems were met with a solution, India hardly has the structural capability to tackle the increase in crop produce.

The recent farmer agitations all around the country should be pointer enough. These are, however, not an insurmountable challenges for a resolute administration.

For India, there is another scarcely highlighted reason to acknowledge the strategic partnership with Israel. A close synergy with America's staunchest ally and one who has huge bipartisan influence in Capitol Hill completes the alignment towards US axis — more so at a time when New Delhi feels a deep strategic anxiety owing to China's aggressive neocolonialism. The troops are still locked in Sikkim sector in the biggest face-off since 1962 war.

Modi has taken the right steps in enabling the win-win partnership. He needs to match his boldness in foreign policy with political will at home.

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Updated Date: Jul 03, 2017 17:52:51 IST

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