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India and Israel on Monday inked nine pacts across diverse sectors, from increasing cooperation in the oil and natural gas sector to film co-production, marking 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India and Israel would seek to strengthen cooperation in sectors that touch the lives of “our peoples”, in agriculture, science and technology, and security. He invited Israeli companies to take advantage of the liberalised foreign direct investment (FDI) regime for joint production in the defence sector.
The not-to-be-missed story of the joint press conference of Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, however, was their easy camaraderie, mutual respect, and affection. The dissonance, if any, was the joint statement failing to mention Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism. Netanyahu highlighted the cooperation in agriculture and counterterrorism. He said both countries faced the scourge of terrorism, but “we grit our teeth, we fight back, we never give in.” He mentioned the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, and is scheduled to pay a visit to Mumbai’s Nariman House, which is being turned into a ‘living memorial’.
Modi extolled the Israeli “spirit of innovation”, while Netanyahu offered more assistance in agriculture and cybersecurity. The two PMs will officially launch the India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund (I4F), which comprises contribution of $20 million each from both countries, to promote research in futuristic technologies.
The two leaders welcomed the setting up of 20 out of 28 centres of excellence for agriculture research that they had agreed upon during Modi’s visit to Tel Aviv in July 2017. According to Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, Netanyahu told Modi that the two countries could move beyond, and Israel, with the help of “big data”, can offer technologies that reach farmers directly and improve farm yields.
Gokhale said Netanyahu urged Modi for an early conclusion of a free-trade agreement (FTA), while both agreed to sign a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) “as soon as possible”.
At a business event in the evening, Modi spoke of recent decisions by his government to open up the FDI regime in single-brand retail and construction. “We are now among the most open economies. We will not stop. We want to do more and better,” the PM said about economic reforms undertaken by his government.
Netanyahu also recounted his efforts at improving the ease of doing business index of his country and battling bureaucracy.
Both acknowledged the key role the other has played in the past couple of years in strengthening the bilateral relationship, which had started with Modi’s visit to Israel, the first by an Indian prime minister, in July 2017.
Their statements at a joint media interaction brimmed with hope for a brighter India-Israel partnership in the future and an understanding of the “civilizational” links of the two nations.
A joint statement identified the “next 25 years as an opportune time to strengthen bonds” between the two peoples “through activities that enhance understanding and create opportunities for mutual progress” and consolidate the foundation for their ‘strategic partnership’, which was signed during Modi’s Israel visit.
The interaction between the two leaders, and the subsequent joint statement, also underlined that the two leaders had moved beyond New Delhi’s December 22 vote in the UN General Assembly in favour of a resolution opposing the recent decision of US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
At the interaction, if Modi referred to Netanyahu by the latter’s nickname ‘Bibi’, the Israeli PM said Modi was a “revolutionary leader”, in the best sense of the term revolutionary. He said Modi was not only “catapulting” India to a brighter future, but “revolutionizing” India-Israel relationship.
Addressing the Israeli PM, Modi said in India he had a reputation of being impatient in getting results. “If I may let out an open secret, I know that so are you,” Modi said. Modi said that during his visit to Tel Aviv in July, Netanyahu “had expressed the intent to cut down on bureaucratic red tape with a machete and forge ahead with speed.”
Elaborating on the agreements and discussions, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said the PM meant the two of them will “take this relationship forward regardless (of the bureaucracy)”.
Apart from oil and gas, India and Israel also signed agreements for cooperation in cybersecurity, space, science and technology, air transport and agreed to have early conclusion of a bilateral investment treaty. A commerce ministry delegation is to visit Israel next month, Gokhale said.
Apart from nine pacts, Nasscom and startup accelerator MassChallenge Israel committed scholarship support of $5,000 each for up to 10 Indian startups. A 'Trilateral Fund' of $50 million has also been created by Israel-India Technology Group (I-ITG) to promote entrepreneurship and trilateral business opportunities between the US, India and Israel.
Israel has investments over $130 million in India, mainly for agricultural, irrigation and renewable energy sectors. New investments are also looking at the manufacturing space. Modi said the two leaders agreed to do more to increase trade and investment.
Netanyahu said he was a son of a historian and India and Israel have had thousands of years of history, but have had diplomatic relations for the past 25 years, but “something different was happening now” because of Modi’s leadership and their partnership. Netanyahu said the fact was that until Modi visited Israel, no leader of India had visited his country for 3,000 years.
The Israeli PM said the two countries were proud of their resilient democracies, and remarked how in 2,000 years of Jews living in India, the community never experienced anti-Semitism, as it did elsewhere. Netanyahu also recalled the sacrifice of Indian soldiers at the Battle of Haifa in the First World War.
Netanyahu said democracies cannot be taken for granted, and listed the sectors in which India and Israel have inked agreements, including in cinema. He said his wife and him were happy and excited that they were going to Bollywood. Netanyahu and his wife are scheduled to be in Mumbai during the last leg of their visit on Thursday.
The Israeli PM said Israel was a fountainhead of innovation and a global force of technology, while India abounded with creative people, particularly scientists. He said both countries wanted more for their people, and Israel has learnt to achieve more with less and highlighted the Israeli innovation that Modi experienced firsthand during his visit to Israel in July when Netanyahu and he drank sea water purified before their eyes. Netanyahu will gift the machine to Modi when the two travel to Gujarat, and also inspect two centres of excellence set up with Israeli assistance.
In an aside, Netanyahu said to his “friend Narendra” that while it was “bit of a stretch”, he would be there anytime that Modi might want to do a yoga class with him.
Modi said that in Netanyahu he had a “counterpart who is equally committed to taking the India-Israel partnership to soaring heights.” He said the Israeli PM’s visit was a “fitting climax” to the commemoration of 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
On the trade side, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary Ramesh Abhishek said efforts are being made to address issues raised by Israeli firms while investing in India.
Addressing a large gathering of business leaders from both nations, Abhishek said the government expects a jump in bilateral investments and trade between the two. Netanyahu is leading a delegation comprising 130 representatives of 102 Israeli companies.