News analysis

India, Israel move towards economic cooperation

Both sides push ties beyond security and defence during Israeli leader's visit to India

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India has turned the spotlight to economic cooperation for bilateral ties, pushing them beyond the traditional sphere of security and defence exchanges that has thus far anchored the relationship, according to analysts.

Both countries agreed during his visit to collaborate jointly on a five-year plan on cooperation in agriculture and to commence research in areas like cyber security, big data analytics in healthcare and film co-production.

"For a long time India and Israel only looked at security cooperation but this is not the case anymore. The focus is shifting to equally important but less attractive things on the economic agenda," said Professor P. R. Kumaraswamy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of the book India's Israel Policy.

"Modi's priority is economic development," the professor added, referring to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Netanyahu, accompanied by a huge business delegation comprising 130 people, was on a six-day visit to India this week during which he held talks with his Indian counterpart, visited India's financial capital Mumbai as well as Gujarat, Mr Modi's home state, and - like most foreign dignitaries - made the mandatory side trip to the Taj Mahal. He is only the second Israeli prime minister to visit India after Mr Ariel Sharon in 2003.

Ties between the two countries have been growing steadily even as India has continued to express support for the Palestinian cause.

Past governments in India have been cautious about highlighting the growing ties with Israel, concerned about the political fallout on the relatively large Muslim community in India as well as the impact it would have on relations with the Gulf states, where over seven million Indians live and work.

But Mr Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party is rooted in Hindu nationalism and has always supported close ties with Israel, has thrown off the veil of secrecy surrounding the relationship. He became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel last year.

Reciprocating the warm welcome he received in Israel, Mr Modi accompanied Mr Netanyahu for many of his engagements in India, including welcoming him in Gujarat, where the two leaders took part in an 8km roadshow to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram in Sabarmati.

Yet the optics of Mr Netanyahu's visit - during which both prime ministers were calling each other by their first names - was also aimed at domestic audiences, said analysts.

"There is no doubt the right wing in India is more enthusiastic about ties with Israel. This visit will strengthen his (Modi's) position among right wing youth ahead of the 2019 (general) elections," said Mr Zikrur Rahman, a former Indian ambassador to Palestine.

He said the trip was also important domestically for Mr Netanyahu, who is facing corruption allegations.

"He is trying to strengthen his position in Israel... telling Israel that the world's largest democracy and a strong nation has been brought by him to Israel's side. Our relationship during the former Congress government was also going strong. Only that it was under the carpet," Mr Zikrur said.

Still, India's support for Israel has not led to it giving up its stand on Palestine. Mr Modi is likely to visit Palestine next month and India voted with the majority at the United Nations against US President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

This is seen to be part of a balancing act as New Delhi moves to also deepen ties with the Arab countries.

Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh noted: "He (Modi) is going to make a separate trip to Palestine. I think India is also doing very delicate, diplomatic manoeuvres."

But some analysts like Prof Kumaraswamy believe that India has moved strategically closer to Israel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'India, Israel move towards economic cooperation'. Print Edition | Subscribe