Why Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Israel matters

In a delicate diplomatic waltz, India will seek to balance its burgeoning ties with Israel with a forceful reiteration of its commitment to the Palestinian cause during External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the West Asia region.

The January 17-18 visit of Mrs Swaraj comes barely months after President Pranab Mukherjee’s trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, which signals India’s enhanced outreach to this strategically located and energy-rich region.

The visit to Israel will be closely watched in the region as the Modi government, unlike his predecessor, has been overt about deepening strategic and economic ties with Tel Aviv amid murmurs of suspicion in some sections of the strategic community about the Modi government’s waning commitment to the Palestinian cause. Indian officials have vehemently rebutted such speculation, with Mrs Swaraj herself making a forceful statement in parliament last year about support of the Palestinian cause being central to India’s foreign policy.

Transforming Defence Ties: Make in India

In Israel, Swaraj will be looking to bolster core pillars of India-Israel ties – defence and counter-terror cooperation – and seek to expand the canvas of economic cooperation between the two countries. The two sides will be looking to fast-track transformation of India-Israel relations from the buyer-seller model to that of co-production and transfer of technology, with many Israeli defence majors showing a marked enthusiasm for the Make in India initiative.   India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is collaborating with Israeli companies in a host of strategic projects, including the Agni missile system. Israel is currently the third largest supplier of cutting-edge hardware for India, after Russia and the US. India is Israel’s largest buyer of military hardware, with Israel supplying various weapons systems, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles over the last few years. Co-production of advanced weaponry will qualitatively upgrade India-Israel defence ties. In this context, Israel is also exploring joint production of drones with India which would contribute to Mr Modi’s flagship programme of ‘Make in India’.

Counter-terror cooperation

One can also expect counter-terror cooperation between India and Israel to acquire more traction. India remains vulnerable to assorted jihadi terror networks active in the region, which are suspected to be backed by Pakistan’s military establishment. The recent Pathankot airbase assault by Pakistani terrorists was a wake-up call to India’s security establishment to buttress the country’s counter-terror infrastructure and enhance anti-terror training of police and security personnel. Israel has formidable expertise in these areas, and New Delhi will be looking to enhance counter-terror and cyber security cooperation with Tel Aviv.

Selling India Story

In the economic arena, the potential is huge. India-Israel trade hovers around $4.5 billion, and the two countries should be looking to double this figure in the next two-three years. The Modi government should be more proactive in seeking greater Israeli investments into India, which are currently less than $1 billion. This will entail a sharper sales pitch on part of India and a multi-pronged outreach to Israeli industries to convince them of new opportunities and enhanced ease of doing business in Asia’s second largest economy.

Expanding cooperation in agriculture, especially dry farming, and water technologies, will also be high on Sushma Swaraj’s Tel Aviv agenda.

The minister will also find time for outreach to the Indian community in Israel. Israel is home to 80,000 Jews of Indian-origin. Culturally, there is a strong synergy, with most Israelis perceiving India as an attractive country with great promise. This is reflected in the constant surge of tourist flows: Around 35,000-40,000 Israelis visit India for tourism and business every year. The attraction is mutual: Over 40,000 Indians visited Israel in 2013, the largest number of tourists from an Asian country.

The Way Ahead

With a widening arc of shared interests, including economic and strategic, the India-Israel relations are set to acquire more strategic depth and economic dynamism in years to come. The most important takeaway from Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Israel will be to firm up an ambitious agenda for Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the Jewish state, which should hopefully happen this year or early next year. PM Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have already forged equations when the two met in New York in September 2014, and decided to push the envelope for this mutually enriching relationship. The sky is the limit for India-Israel relations, as Mr Netanyahu told Mr Modi famously.

(Sridhar Ramaswamy contributed inputs for this article)



Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.