Narendra Modi in Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu hails India partnership as 'marriage made in heaven'

Israel and India signed several agreements on cooperation in the fields of technology, water and agriculture Wednesday, the second day of a landmark visit by the Indian prime minister to the Jewish state.

The cooperation marks a "marriage made in heaven," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking alongside his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

The agreements are the centerpiece of Modi's three-day visit, which began Tuesday, to celebrate the 25 years of diplomatic relations and bring them even closer. The two leaders also said they discussed counterterrorism and cybersecurity cooperation between the two states.

In the months leading up to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's historic visit to Israel, India signed two arms deals, spending $2.6 billion on Israeli missile defense systems.

Since Modi arrived on Tuesday, military ties -- for decades the secretive bedrock of India-Israel relations -- have taken a back seat. The governments have instead spent time discussing companies that sell medical devices, hi-tech and water systems.

Rather than making the visit, the first by a sitting Indian prime minister, all about the value of deals signed, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Modi appeared intent on playing up shared culture and values, in the hope this will give commercial ties deeper roots.

India's PM Modi with Netanyahu in Israel/ Pic courtesy: PIB

India's PM Modi with Netanyahu in Israel/ Pic courtesy: PIB

"Our goal is to build a relationship that reflects our shared priorities and draws on enduring bonds between our peoples," Modi said at the joint press conference.

During the Cold War, India didn't have open relations with Israel, leaning heavily in favor of the Palestinians. But over the past quarter century, the countries have developed close ties in high-tech and defense.

Apart from meetings with Netanyahu, Modi will hold talks with tech companies and the local community of Indian Jews. He also said Wednesday he would pay respects to Indian soldiers buried in Haifa who died fighting in the British Army during World War I.

The packed schedule also included a visit Tuesday to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, but no meetings with Palestinian officials have been planned.

Modi also met Wednesday with Moshe Holtzberg, a boy whose parents were killed in a 2008 massacre in Mumbai carried out by Muslim militants. Holtzberg's parents were emissaries of the Chabad movement living in Mumbai at the time.

Rabbi Yisroel Kozlovsky, co-director of the Mumbai Chabad, said he was glad Modi "recognized the sacrifice" of Holtzberg's parents, describing them as an "exceptional couple" that worked to establish Chabad-Lubavitch in Mumbai.

Under Arab pressure, India kept its distance from Israel for decades but is now seeing advantages in a complementary relationship with Israel. There is interest on both sides in building a broad economic base, rather than merely a contractual exchange based around defense.

The timing reflects a diplomatic shift toward Israel being more accepted in the region. Modi, who is acutely conscious of the need to adopt innovation and new technology to update India's infrastructure has always had a personal affinity for Israel and came to learn more about the country before he became premier.

"India and Israel are walking hand in hand into the future as partners," Modi and Netanyahu wrote in a joint editorial this week. "From start-ups to space, communications to cybernetics, Israel's technological capabilities are merging with India's."

The two men are spending 48 hours together with Modi, accompanied by Indian business leaders, getting a political and business tour that covers Israeli history, culture and innovation, as well as the signing of economic agreements.

Looking to reorient Israel's economy toward Asia, Netanyahu hopes more deals will follow, setting a goal of increasing exports to India by 25 percent in the next four years. But it may take a while before the Modi-Netanyahu relationship sparks a serious expansion in investment and trade, both of which remain relatively negligible.

In many respects export-dependent Israel and India, which is focused on supplying its huge population, are complementary.
Israel is a global leader in water and food systems, two critical fields India needs to upgrade. India wants to strengthen its manufacturing base and is looking to do so with technologies coming from Israel. Both countries host major diamond trading and polishing hubs.

Israeli exports to India last year totaled $1.15 billion, excluding diamonds, just 2.5 percent of total exports. Bilateral trade was less than $2 billion, which jumped to $4.13 billion including diamonds. Israel's foreign direct investment in India totals only $100 million.

"It's nothing, it's a blip. Why hasn't the relationship grown to the level it should have?" said A. Didar Singh, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce.

Singh said more needed to be done to ease regulations, lower non-tariff barriers and solve licensing problems.
Incentives and lifting of red tape could help overcome what diplomats, lobbyists and business owners say is a cultural divide between the breakneck pace of Israel's start-up scene and India's more gradual approach.

It can take time to cement negotiations in India, where building trust and a relationship is paramount, said Elias Ghosalkar, a former investment banker from Mumbai who is director of corporate development for OurCrowd after moving to Israel last year.

"Israelis on the other hand are quite direct and lack patience in their business approach," he told Reuters.
Israel's ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, said it is becoming easier to do business between the two countries, even if there may remain some differences in practice.

"It could be that the Israeli businessman arrives on a Monday flight and wants to return on Thursday with a deal in hand. I say to him 'forget it'. It's not going to happen. There are processes, the processes take time, not four days," he said.

(With Reuters)

Updated Date: Jul 06, 2017 03:13 AM

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