PM’s Israel visit: High on hype, but low on deliverables

Separating the reality from the hype in Prime Minister Modi's visit to Israel isn't an easy task.

 Netanyahu, Israel, Modi, Olga Beach, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Manoj Joshi
PTI

Separating the hype from the reality of the Modi visit to Israel is not an easy task. In part this is because of the personalities involved. Both Prime Minister Modi and his Israeli counterpart ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu are hyped up personalities.

Take, for example, Bibi’s comment that the India-Israel friendship was “a marriage made in heaven.” In no time, the internet put out that this was Israel’s third marriage since the Israeli PM had used an identical phrase to describe his country’s relationship with a) Microsoft in 2016 and b) China earlier this year in March.

Playing to the gallery

Modi played to the gallery with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, as well as a meeting with young Moshe Holtzberg who survived the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 that took the lives of his parents Rivka and Gavriel.

Yet, strangely enough, there was no reference to bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack to justice, as was the case in the US joint statement recently.

A measure of the publicity were the front page headlines that accompanied the decision of the two countries to set up a $ 40 million fund for joint innovation.

Just two days earlier, Indian tycoons Nandan Nilekani and Sanjeev Agarwal set up a $100 million fund in India, which was appropriately placed in the business pages of newspapers.

Israel’s careful posture

Admiration for Israel is part of the BJP’s DNA. The Jewish state is seen as a model for what they would like India to be, and its battles with Arabs and Palestinians is seen as being similar to India’s fight with Pakistan.

Israel’s muscular approach to dealing with its adversaries is the envy of Modi & Co, never mind the fact that several wars and annexation of territory have not brought peace to Israel, which lives in high state of tension over potential terror strikes.

Given its size, Israel has some justification for adopting a posture which compels it to fight its battles outside the bounds of the country. India on the other hand, does not face a comparable threat, yet, the Modi government makes out as though terrorism is an existential threat to India.

Terrorism did figure in the joint statement but not in any prominent way. The Israelis probably did not want to get too mixed up in the Indian focus on the Taliban and the Pakistani groups. And unlike our other strategic ally, the US, they did not call on Pakistan to ensure that its territory was not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.

Deliverables from the visit

Minus the hype, then, the real meat in the visit was on practical matters. There is a great deal India can learn from Israel in the area of water management and agriculture.

But while Israel can give us the technology which it already does, and help us with some extension work, it is India’s responsibility to disseminate it widely and it’s not clear whether our states have the capacity to do so.

Israel is important to us in the area of space programmes. It may be recalled that the first radar imaging satellite used by our defence services, TechSar, was custom-built in Israel. What India needs to tap is Israel’s huge SME sector which has world-class niche capabilities in a range of technologies.

The joint statement has identified some areas like atomic clocks, GEO-LEO optical links, and electrical propulsion of satellites.

Defence pact fairly routine

Another area of importance is cyber security. Though the joint statement makes an anodyne reference, India would be well advised to make this a focus area of its relationship.

Given its security perspective, Israel has developed a high-quality IT base specialising in anti-virus software, cyber defence technologies and other forms of internet security. Many global vendors have set up shop in Israel or, like Microsoft, acquired Israeli companies. Israel’s ties with the United States gives it a special edge in this area.

The joint statement reference to defence is, again, fairly routine, emphasising the need to focus on joint development of products and transfer of technology from Israel.

A lot of the technology has an American connection and any transfer would require a US go-ahead. Indeed, one of the principal Indian motives in establishing close defence ties with Israel was to use it as a cutout for US technologies which are always difficult to acquire and come with many conditions. But Israel takes a totally business-like approach to defence technologies and India has to shell out hard cash to acquire them.

Indian defence imports are vital for Israel constituting 41 percent of the exports of their arms industry. Notwithstanding the hype, they are less important for India, and amount to just 7 percent of our imports, with many of the products we get also available from other European and Russian companies.

De-hyphenating Palestine

Modi and Netanyahu probably see each other as birds of a feather. Both are right-wing and revel in muscular policies both at home and abroad, though in Bibi’s case, the posture is an outcome of his dependence on extreme right-wing parties.

The Modi government’s crackdown on NGOs, for example, finds an echo in Israel, where the government is seeking to pass a law to check human rights NGOs.

For Israel, the Modi visit is a big thing, because of the obvious veneration that the visitor has for the Jewish state, unlike many other leaders around the world who would rather avoid the Israeli embrace.

Added to this is Modi’s decision to de-hyphenate the Palestinian relationship by avoiding a visit to Ramallah, the Palestinian headquarters, which is just 30 minutes away by road.

However, the joint statement does endorse the Israel-Palestine Peace process, even though under Netanyahu it is dead in the water. Modi’s admiration for Israel has led to India giving up an important plank of its foreign policy.

Israel’s equation with China and Iran

The contrast with China could not be starker. China’s trade with Israel is three times that of India, already more than a thousand Israeli start-up companies have set up shop in China.

Bibi has strongly endorsed the One Belt One Road project yet, Beijing has not hesitated as to support UN resolutions denouncing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and in 2016, during a visit to Egypt, Xi Jinping called for the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Iran has been the invisible elephant in the Indian-Israeli room. Netanyahu views it as an existential threat to Israel and has done all he can to get the US to act against its nuclear programme. On the other hand, Iran forms an important part of India’s geopolitical thrust to the Middle-East.

Iran’s location and the Chah Bahar and International North South Transportation Corridor projects offer New Delhi a means of riposting China’s OBOR. Just how New Delhi hopes to square the circle of its “strategic ties” with Israel and the US. Although, its strategic needs with Iran are not clear.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

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Manoj Joshi