Building on the first-ever visit by an Indian prime minister to the Jewish nation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-day trip to India (January 14-19) signals an accelerated transformation and upgrade of India-Israeli partnership. The Israeli leader’s first visit to India will focus on diversifying a defence-focused relationship to a more broad-based partnership, driven by technology and innovation.
In this wide-ranging conversation with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India and World and India Writes Network, Israel’s Ambassador to India Daniel Carmon maps the way ahead for this crucial partnership in key sectors of agriculture, water, innovation, technology and start-ups. Echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words, the envoy says, “Even the sky is not the limit” for India-Israel relations.
- Q) Looking back and looking ahead, what will be major focus areas that will shape India-Israel relations in months to come?
- A) PM Modi’s visit to Israel was really the culmination of this surge in relations that we have been witnessing for the last few years. We have seen more visits during these years. Defence ministers, agriculture ministers, science ministers, home affairs ministers are visiting each other.
The President of India’s visit to Israel was a really big development, but when it comes to the Prime Minister of India visiting Israel, anyone who knows a bit about India-Israel relations says wow, this has happened! This is not only historical, not only unprecedented, not only is it the first time an Indian PM visited Israel. This is a huge message. A message to India and Israel, to the systems, to the governments, to the ministries, to the practitioners, to the businessmen, to the people.
In India they say that this was one of the most important, if not the most important visit, by Prime Minister Modi outside of India during 2017, but in Israel it definitely was the most important visit. It was appreciated and received as such.
Anyone who reads the joint statement can see some very clear messages. First of all, the two countries have elevated their relationship to the level of a strategic partnership. This is something that is to be not only noted and appreciated, but analyzed and understood again; look back at the last 25 years and what does it mean? What is the message to our own people? What is the message to the world? To other countries? The fact that this visit not only received attention from the media in India more than anywhere else, but also in Europe and the US. Do they do that on any other visit that Prime Minister Modi does anywhere in the world? This really was an unprecedented,landmark visit.
- Q) Going forward, what areas of bilateral cooperation will see major progress?
- A) I would define them as the ones that are already on our joint table and will be upgraded, and the ones that we have not explored yet. We are talking about a process which received a big boost during Indian PM’s visit. For example, it was the first time that a CEOs meet was initiated in which CEOs of very important companies from both sides were represented. They deliberated amongst themselves and signed quite a few MoUs amounting to billions of dollars. They exchanged views on how to do business with each other. They saw the India Innovation Bridge, which was a showcase of eight or nine companies from both sides with solutions to all sorts of challenges. These established companies on both sides committed themselves to a dialogue of CEOs where all sorts of disciplines met. You see defence meeting irrigation. There was one particular company that uses the success story of defence technology, cut and pasted into irrigation. It’s an important forum for engagement and the visit will undoubtedly enhance its activity.
On the social side also, there are more exchanges and activities now. We have so many people from India who are visiting Israel. There is more interest from academia and even NGOs are showing interest in India.
There are specific areas of cooperation like water and agriculture, which will be upgraded. The two MoUs were signed in these areas during PM’s visit. A water project will be operational within a few weeks, bringing more Israeli technologies under a governmental umbrella from both sides.
We have set up a $40 million India-Israel Industrial R&D and Innovation Fund (I4F),which would encourage entrepreneurs and researchers on both sides to collaborate. $40 million for five years is a big thing. For Israel, it’s definitely a big thing!
Another area is agriculture where we are already doing wonders together. The third crucial area would be more engagement in innovation. Innovation Bridge was a good start. Recently, I had a very good conversation with the head of NITI Aayog and his innovation team. It’s called the Innovation Mission, where we explored how to use the visit as a platform for more activities. We have set up a $40 million India-Israel Industrial R&D and Innovation Fund (I4F), which would encourage entrepreneurs and researchers on both sides to collaborate. $40 million for five years is a big thing. For Israel, it’s definitely a big thing!
- Q) How will this fund be operationalized?
- A) The MoUs have to be ratified in both countries and it takes a bit of time. The idea is not to have the governments work on those, but rather researchers of both countries should decide on a joint research project and then apply for the fund.
There will be a common board, which will have people from both sides, which will invite and analyze the applications. The Department of Science and Technology (DST), from the Indian side, and GITA (Global Innovation and Technology Alliance) and Innovation Authority from Israel will be involved in this process.Israel is among the top countries that allocates a sizeable percentage of its GDP (around 3.9%) to science and technology, R&D, which is more than any other country in the world. It is probably a part of the success story of the science community in Israel.
There are now three plants in India, which are the result of Indian-Israeli collaboration and are part of ‘Make in India.’ These will bring employment, modernization and boost the economy.
- Q) Israel is famously called The Start-up Nation. How do you look at prospects of collaboration between Indian and Israeli start-ups?
- A) We will see more activities with start-ups. The spirit of the Prime Minister’s visit opens the door for more activities by helping facilitate Indian companies that are scouting for Israeli start-ups and deciding to grow with them, or are looking for technology transfer companies that each university has in Israel. Israel is a supermarket of ideas and innovations. There are various shelves in this supermarket. In a university, you have a R&D center and a technology transfer company that is the touching point between the university and the industry. There are many channels that have been opened in the last few months. We hope that PM Modi’s visit will serve as a catalyst and an accelerator of more collaborations between start-ups in India and Israel.
- Q) How do you see Make in India collaboration between India and Israel progressing?
- A) I have always stressed that ‘Make in India’ for Israeli companies is not an easy decision to make because we launched our own “Made in Israel” campaign many years ago. For years we have been buying only Israeli products. Now we have changed. We have evolved and we are much more engaged with the European Union. You see more consumer goods and services that come from abroad. Given this history, this is not an easy decision for Israeli companies to move production lines to India. However, we are flexible to be engaged with Make in India. There are now three plants in India, which are the result of Indian-Israeli collaboration and are part of ‘Make in India.’ These will bring employment, modernization and boost the economy. Therefore, you have a product researched and developed in Israel, which is being manufactured in India as a joint venture with Israeli companies.
- Q) Can you share a few examples?
- A) There is a plant that was inaugurated two months ago in Madhya Pradesh and there is a plant in Gurgaon, which are manufacturing as a joint venture. One more plant will be set up in Hyderabad. This is Make in India.
- Q) In practical terms, going forward, how will India-Israel strategic partnership manifest in concrete actions on the ground? We already have extensive defence and counter-terror cooperation.
- A) It will be more in the areas in which we already excel. A week before the PM’s visit, there was a resolution by the Israeli government, which set a roadmap and allocated funds amounting to more than almost 300 million shekels for focus areas in India-Israel partnership. The scope of this resolution is unprecedented despite the fact that Israel has adopted 3-4 resolutions like that in the past few years. This is an instrument and a roadmap that the government has given to its ministries in various sectors – finance, agriculture, science and technology, health. We in the government worked pretty hard on it for a few months. The actual activity will be done by the business sector, and here we are not talking about defence. Defense cooperation will be on a separate track.
- Q) The setting up of a CEOs forum was an important step, but given the huge potential in the economic arena bilateral trade at $3-4 billion is still way below the potential. Compared to that, Israel-China bilateral trade is around $13 billion. What more can be done to enhance economic relationship?
- A) We’ll meet in a year or two and we will see the results of this. We are permanently in the middle of processes. We are still trying to move beyond circumspection and complexes of the past. We didn’t have it right during all those years and the lack of visibility was a part of it. But nowadays, we talk about strategic partnership and we have visits. Now, it will become a routine to see our leaders visiting each other. You see thousands of people from India attending conferences on water technology, agriculture, health, smart mobility and cyber security. The Indian people, government, businessmen, entrepreneurs are visiting Israel like never before because they know that they have this supermarket of innovations there and it’s good to do business with Israel, and the other way around.
We have very limited connectivity– we should have direct flights so that you don’t have to go through Hong Kong or Bangkok. One central part of the visit was to get to know each other better and to deepen this people-to-people connect. Not only did Prime Minister Modi see Israeli capabilities in technology first-hand, but we also had this community event which was so important. The Jewish community or the Israelis of Indian origin are an important bridge between our countries.
To sum up, it’s something very deep that is happening between us and this is the success of the visit. And now when we talk about India today in Israel or about Israel in India, things have dramatically changed and they haven’t changed in a day or two. It’s a culmination of processes. Not only are we celebrating 25 years of diplomatic relations, but something big is happening between us.
- Q) Looking ahead, can one expect an acceleration of visits and activities across the spectrum?
- A) Across the spectrum – it’s a nice way to put it. Parliamentarians, ministers, businessmen. More cultural exchanges, more connectivity and more tourism. It will now become routine. Earlier, there always was something very dramatic or exceptional in anything that had to do with India and Israel. Going forward, even the sky is not the limit!
Now when we talk about India today in Israel or about Israel in India, things have dramatically changed and they haven’t changed in a day or two. It’s a culmination of processes. Not only are we celebrating 25 years of diplomatic relations, but something big is happening between us.
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