External Affairs

Focus on Water and Terror as Modi Makes Israel India’s 31st ‘Strategic Partner’

Netanyahu says India and Israel are a marriage made in heaven, the same phrase he used to describe Israel’s relations with China last year.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to Israeli museum to witness an exhibition on India-Jewish Heritage, in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: India and Israel have upgraded their ties to a “strategic partnership”, with both sides emphasising strong action against terror and cooperation in water, agriculture and technology.

Though the Ministry of External Affairs does not maintain a formal list, a rough count by The Wire indicates this would make Israel India’s 31st ‘strategic partner’.

The second day of the first-ever visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel saw the signing of seven agreements. The joint statement issued after the formal talks  said that the visit had “raised the bilateral relationship to that of a strategic partnership”.

With a substantive stress on security cooperation, Modi said that both leaders had “agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests and also cooperate to combat growing radicalization and terrorism, including in cyber space”.

He made common cause with Israel as a victim of terrorism, like India. “India and Israel live in complex geographies. We are aware of strategic threats to regional peace and stability. India has suffered first-hand the violence and hatred spread by terror. So has Israel,” he said.

The joint statement noted that there could be no “justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever”.  “The leaders asserted that strong measures should be taken against terrorists, terror organisations, their networks and all those who encourage, support and finance terrorism, or provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups. They also underscored the need to ensure that terrorist organisations do not get access to any WMD or technologies,” it said.

The statement also committed the two sides to work towards early adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), a document the Indian government has been pushing at the United Nations for nearly two decades now.

There was no reference to “cross border terrorism”, as in the India-US joint statement, or listing of names of terror organisations.

There was also another missing element. A report in Haaretz newspaper had pointed out that the Israeli foreign ministry “made every attempt to take the Iranian issue off the public and media agenda”. In 2013, Israel had claimed that Iran was behind an attack on the vehicle of the defence attache, which left his spouse injured.

In a briefing ahead of the visit, Israeli ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon had said that India was “not covering up the investigation of the attack”. India, of course, retains close relations with the Iran, especially in energy and connectivity.

On the defence front, there was not much action, beyond the joint statement affirming focus on joint development and ‘Make in India’ initiative. This despite the defence relationship being the most developed aspect in bilateral relations.

Modi’s visit is a stand-alone journey to Israel – which is a new norm compared to the previous visits by Indian leaders, including by President Pranab Mukherjee, where Palestine was also included in the itinerary.

In his oral remarks, Modi did not mention Palestine directly. “We also discussed the situation in West Asia and wider region. It is India’s hope that peace, dialogue, and restraint will prevail,” he said.

But the joint statement had a more explicit reference. “The two prime ministers discussed the developments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They underlined the need for the establishment of a just and durable peace in the region. They reaffirmed their support for an early negotiated solution between the sides based on mutual recognition and security arrangements,” it said.

Ahead of the trip, Modi had given an interview to an Israeli paper where he had endorsed the two-state solution. However, the absence of a reference to this in the joint statement was more a nod towards his host, as Netanyahu has distanced himself from the long-accepted ‘two-state’ formula.

Water and farm focus

With technology being the buzzword, both sides have established a $40 million fund for research in industrial development.

They also agreed to establish a “strategic partnership in water and agriculture”, which will focus on water conservation, water treatment, as well as the cleaning of Ganges.

While Israel has a reputation for superior technological management of water resources, the Palestinians have long complained that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory is driven in part by the theft and exploitation of Palestinian aquifers.

Credit: VisualisingPalestine

In the field of economic cooperation, Modi pointed out that there was “need to do more” by the private sector and that this message will be conveyed to the CEOs forum on Thursday.

Netanyahu said that they had “empowered our staff” to provide a concrete road map in various sector by “first of January”.

The high-point of Modi’s schedule was, however, not his talks with Netanyahu, but his meeting with an 11-year-old Israeli boy whose parents were killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks at Chabad House.

In 2008, Moshe Holtzberg was only two when he was rescued by his Indian nanny, Sandra Samuels, who travelled to Israel to look after him. Now a be-spectacled pre-teen, Holtzberg, along with his maternal and paternal grandparents and Indian nanny Samuels, met with Modi and Netanyahu in Jersusalem.

As all the adults in the rooms looked on, Moshe read out a written statement which began with welcoming words in Hindi.

“I hope that I will be able to visit Mumbai. When I get older, I will live there. I will be the director of Chabad House,” said Moshe, who was wearing a lapel pin of the Indian and Israeli flags. Moshe, who sometimes seemed a bit bemused at all the attention, ended his reading with an expression of love for Modi and the people of India.

Netanyahu chipped in that Moshe’s visit could be as early as next year. “PM Modi has invited me to come to India. You will come with me to Mumbai,” he said. The Indian prime minister also said that both he and his family members will be given “long-term visas” so that they can travel to India at their convenience.

Pointing out to Sandra Samuel, Modi told Netanyahu that she shared the same mother tongue as that of the head of the anti-terror squad during 26/11.

The entire encounter was shown live on Indian TV channels.

Modi began his day with a call on Israeli president Reuven Revlin, who also was a recipient of the Indian prime minister’s trademark embrace.

Thereafter, Modi went to join Netanyahu for formal talks at the King David hotel. Before they began restricted discussions, the Israeli prime minister took Modi to the window to guide him to the main sights of old Jerusalem.

Pointing to Temple Mount, which is also known as al-Quds al-Sharif, Netanyahu described that as “the cradle of our history”.

Indian sources had told The Wire that a visit to the Temple Mount was never planned as part of Modi’s Israeli itinerary. Though Modi travelled to Jerusalem – half of which is under forcible Israeli occupation in contravention of international law – India has not changed its stance that the future of the holy city has to be decided by the Palestinians and Israelis.

With both leaders continuing to display their bonhomie, Netanyahu said, “30 years ago, I went on a date in Tel Aviv in an Indian restaurant, and produced two fine children”. Therefore, he asked the owner of that Indian restaurant “to prepare this dinner, for this date, and it was equally good”.

Continuing with his high praise, Netanyahu said that India and Israel are changing our world, “because this is a cooperation, it’s a marriage really made in heaven but we’re implementing it here on Earth”. In March, the Israeli prime minister used the same conjugal analogy during his visit to China.

Bitten by Modi’s obsession with acronyms, Netanyahu has apparently coined a mathematical ‘formula’ – IT into IT equal to I squared into I squared. This expands to “Indian talent into Israeli technology equals India Israel ties for tomorrow“, Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar told reporters later.

As on the first day, Netanyahu accompanied Modi to nearly all his appointments on Thursday. He also went with Modi to the Israel Museum, where they viewed three India-related exhibits. Later, both of them went to Tel Aviv to address Indian-origin Israeli citizens. Modi announced that there would be a Delhi-Mumbai-Tel Aviv flight soon. He also opened OCI cards for Indian origin Israelis who had completed their military service.

On Thursday, he will travel to Haifa to pay respect to Indian soldiers of three Indian princely states who fought and died in 1918 to wrest control of the then Palestinian city from the Ottoman empire on behalf of the British empire. In New Delhi, a central road, Teen Murti Marg is proposed to be renamed as Haifa Marg. The road has a roundabout where a statue already commemorates the Indian role in the Battle of Haifa.

Netanyahu’s gift to Modi had also a link to the military history. He presented a black and white photograph depicting turbaned Indian soldiers of the British Indian army leading a military column to free Jerusalem.