In words of the incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “When I get up in the morning, do a yoga pose and look eastwards, India is the first democracy and when my friend, (Narendra) Modi does a similar pose looking westwards, Israel is the first democracy ” . He is so fond of this line, that he said it twice – once during Modi’s visit in July 2017 and once during his visit to India in January 2018. Such reciprocal visits within a span of 7 months by heads of states is not very usual – and this says a lot of the growing importance of relations between India and Israel.
I have been living in Israel for close to three years now and also associated with an organization promoting Israel-Asia relations in different domains. This helped me to gain a lot of thoughtful insights from relevant people and about the future of the relationship. Some of the key reasons in my opinion are:
Impact of Indian diaspora
One of the major reason is – the presence of sizeable community of Indian origin Israelis . Most of them (Bombay and Cochin Jews) migrated to Israel around 1950’s-1960’s and others (Bene Menashe) migrated much later (2000’s). Unlike most of the immigrant population in Israel, who immigrated to escape persecution from their origin countries, Indian origin Jews migrated mostly due to religious reasons. And almost all of them whom I met felt strongly connected to India. In my opinion, this is a major soft reason why India and Israel has been cordial to each other. Surprisingly, there are only a handful of Indian restaurants in Israel and I can think of no reason why is it so.
[The public event of PM Modi’s address to Indian origin Israelis at Tel Aviv was attended to over 6000 people, picture from my phone]
Backpacking in India
Many non-Indian origin Israelis have also had some Indian influence thanks to the post army backpacking trip. Although, most of them travel in groups to only certain parts of India, it helps to build a great positive image about the country. Even a lot of regular Israelis (non-backpackers) like to travel to India, often multiple times. A colleague of mine recently visited all the northeastern states and probably knows more about North East India than many Indians.
(Northeast India collectively refers to a group of 7 states in the east of India geographically separated by India by Bangladesh)
Coming to some hard reasons – trade! When it comes to defense trade, India is THE BIGGEST client of Israel. No other nation comes close. The recent suspended and re-initiated Rafael deal is just a small testimony of Israeli influence on Indian military budget . If one day, India decides not to buy Israeli military technology, certain companies might go bankrupt.
When it comes to civilian trade, the performance is not quite up to the mark. The bilateral trade relations have stagnated since last 5 years or so (~$ 4.5 billion). Out of that, a major share is attributed to diamond cutting and polishing. In addition, there has been a lot of governmental emphasis on agriculture and water technologies – in both of which, Israel is an innovation powerhouse. Israel is also home to some of the hottest innovations in areas of medical devices, digital healthcare and cyber-security, holding the promise of solving some of India’s pressing problems, particularly in healthcare sector.
Scaling up in India
Israel has the reputation of being the “StartUp Nation” but faces significant difficulties in scaling up businesses partly due to lack of large market. Only two (civilian) Israeli companies have made it big (Teva and Amdocs) and both of them have significant presence in India. India comes as a major market for Israeli technologies, with a mammoth sized market with increasing purchasing capacity. However, the road is not trivial. As compared to the Chinese, Indians have been traditionally wary of investing in Israeli innovation. This is however changing and there have been some notable investments in Israel from Tech Mahindra, Tata and L&T Infotech in last couple of years   . The Israeli emphasis on the Indian market can be surmised from the fact that PM Netanyahu was accompanied by the largest ever business delegation in a official visit with over 130 business leaders. However, in my opinion civilian trade requires more focused steering.
Indian students in Israel
This gets neglected often. Although nowhere close to US, UK, Germany or Australia, but the number of Indian PhD and post-doc students have been rising year on year. Take a stroll at Tel Aviv University or Hebrew University Campus and you will get to know what I am talking about. These students will form the agents of scientific, technological and cultural co-operation.
[Indian and Israeli students celebrating Holi at Weizmann Institute of Science, Source: Personal collection]
India is a focus country of Israel. Outside of US, Israel has the largest diplomatic presence in India in terms of manpower (Source: personal communication with an ex-Israeli ambassador). There is no denying about growing appreciation of ties between the two countries and the political leadership must be credited for that. However, the relationship stems from shared values and mutual respect, which is certain to grow organically in near future.