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Israel PM Netanyahu’s Visit To India And Transforming The India-Israel Relations

“I want to tell you first how we in Israel overcame our challenge. We’re a tiny people, live in a small country, somewhat smaller than India, a lot smaller than India, no natural resources, no great rivers. Well, the Jordan is a great river, but it's a stream, it trickles. And yet we've become I think a force to contend with on the world scene, and I would like to describe to you the process that we went through and then discuss what we could do together," Says Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Prime Minister

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Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited India from 14-19 January 2018. It was the first visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to India. Netanyahu’s 6 days visit is seen to be transformational and has established the fact that India’s relations with Israel, after 25 years of diplomatic ties, has shifted its stance from anodyne to exciting. A victim of historical jingoism and long-persecuted cultural and religious apartheid, Israel is a story worth taking account for its sheer power of innovation and technology that drive in a lot of the revolutions in the daily life of Israel. Until now, the caricature of India-Israel relations is seen to be a growing defense partner of India with Israel’s willingness to provide critical components for the homeland security and to fight terrorism in a similar way that Israel has faced over the years from the hostile neighbours. Other side, Israel, towards the march over the reclamation and occupation of Palestine-committed act of suppression- which is the antithesis of the rights of peaceful coexistence of Palestine. But, the narrative has gone beyond the dot as the world’s leading innovator in the field of agriculture and water management, Israel has shown the way. The Innovation Center of Excellence under the India-Israel agriculture projects have had some of the remarkable results, and, now span to 20 Centers across India with 7 more such Centers are underway across the states of India. And, this is the heart of story where the pragmatism should be the hallmark of our foreign policy, and, an enabler to the investment in the sectors of Indian economy which are distress due to lower productivity, resource crunch, and erratic weather, these translating into lower returns. This is an apathy.

With the high degree of confidence, PM Modi hailed the possibility with Israel: “Whether it is Water Tech; or Agri-Tech; whether it is food production, its processing or conservation; Israel has been a shining example with new breakthrough and advances. Whether it is physical or virtual security; whether it is on land, water or space; your technology has won admiration. In fact, hailing from a water deficient state in India, I have particularly admired Israel’s water efficiency." But the question is how are we going to realize this potential and what is the outcome so far? Then, it is also about scalability and the absorption of the solutions that could reach out and wide across India? What is the model of development with Israel, we are talking about? And, what way the partnership is transformative for India?

The talk of investment

The Bilateral trade still holds below USD 5 billion with Israel. To put that number in context, trade between Israel and China was worth USD 11.35 billion in 2016. It is not a great number to look at. “But, investment was not the goal. Innovation, collaboration was the focus”, insists Sunil Parekh, member of India-Israel working groups. Total investment in innovation, research & development is USD 40 million plus USD 68 million by Israel over the last five years.

Lack of investment and opportunities for future possibility are a paradox but PM Netanyahu had an interesting point to make. He said, “India has an established auto industry, but Israel’s auto industry is just 5 years old and regarded as a leader and an innovator in the world. We have 500 startup companies that receive USD 500 billion investment every year and deal only with the automotive industry." Talking of high point of the culture of innovation in Israel and, in the context of India, he elaborated: “…this is where Israel is a pioneer. Why can’t we have a partnership with India? And this can happen everywhere, be it digital health, water, energy, transportation, IT... And all this is before you discuss security and defense." This is important as to realize the potential with Israel, we better focus on partnering in terms of research and innovation. Big investment is mirage.

Pankaj Patel, Past President, FICCI & Chairman of India-Israel CEO Forum feels optimistic about the strategic partnership with Israel: “Proposals focused on strategic areas which could have an impact on global economy. With these recommendations, we are confident that in addition to bilateral investments and technology partnerships, we can also expect to take a giant leap towards our goal of $ 20 billion of trade in next 5 years”.

One of the highlights of the visit is the MoUs where Israel has given initial approval for Indian energy companies to explore oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, in the first such move by Indian firms in that region.

India and Israel have yet to sign the Free Trade Agreement (FTI) and Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTI). Though, India is not keen on FTI, Bilateral Trade Agreement is on the fast track now. This will provide impetus for the necessary mechanism for further investments and exchanges at a broader level.

Seeds of Innovation

“The countries that will seize the future will be those who innovate,” prophesized Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an inaugural session of the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi.

The ecosystem of innovation in India is abysmal with the size and scale. The systematic use of acquired technology from others is only taking our industry nowhere on the global trade. Israel breaks through the clutter. Israel is a small country in terms of human resource but a leader in multiple fields. In 2018 Bloomberg Innovation Index, Israel occupies the top 10, based on the seven criteria, including research and development spending and concentration of high-tech public companies.

India requires an approach that absorbs the offerings but at same time, should engage with Israel in multiple collaborations across India and Israel. Israel PM Netanyahu spoke about the “India-Israel Innovation Bridge” a platform dedicated to bringing together Israeli and Indian entrepreneurs and startups to collaborate on a series of innovative projects related to water, agriculture, and health. He was emphatic that this was the kind of investment India needed-Investment in innovation. “There can be no better partner than Israel for inculcating the culture of Innovation in India and for mentoring the start-ups for developing the solutions for India and scaling them up to take to other parts of the world," says Pankaj R Patel, CMD, Cadila Healthcare & Co-Chair, India-Israel CEOs Forum while talking of the quality of research inputs.

Agriculture and Water

The Fountainhead of Israeli’s contribution lies in the Agricultural Center of Excellence(CoE). India loses agricultural produce worth over $11 billion which is more than the Centre’s budgetary allocation for agriculture for 2017-18 annually according to a study by (ICAR). Agriculture reforms never attract the mainstream of Indian media and especially at the highest level of bilateral meeting with the heads of nations. Israel is one of earliest collaborator in Indian agricultural sector- and partner in response to the challenge in the fields of agriculture and irrigation. Agricultural cooperation is the highlight and can be focused beside the usual defense and other cooperation.

The Indo-Israel agriculture project (IIAP) initiated in 2008 operates through ‘Agricultural Centres of Excellence’ that aim to help horticulture with crop diversity and productivity by implementing Israeli technology and know-how. Apart from horticulture crops, Centres for cut flower and seed production, beekeeping and dairy have also come up in the country. Haryana, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan have been the most active in contacting the National Horticulture Mission and spreading across to other states. Adviser to the India-Israel CEO Forum, Sunil Parekh feels the potential is revolutionary, and comments: “special agriculture technology for targeted plant-single plant-based nutrient supply system, water can save billions, & double farmer income. It is Wow technology! It reduces water requirements & input costs in agriculture significantly. It's especially great for drought years. Can reduce rural distress.” He further emphasized that Netanyahu specifically mentioned this technology during the talk.

Freshwater withdrawals are highest by the agricultural sector, and accounts for nearly 84-85 percent of water withdrawal in India, which is well above the global average. Israel is the example for the world in optimizing the use of water in general and agriculture. Micro Irrigation Incubated in Israel and gradually spread worldwide, has proven to be a technology which has the potential to change the face of Indian agriculture. The Center of Excellence has shown tremendous results, and it demands scalability. Now to achieve mass adoption of smart irrigation solutions and make micro irrigation available to all, the actions by the government should be accompanied by more aggressive promotions and simplifying the subsidy process for farmers. “One can imagine what would be global impact of this Second Green Revolution in India, if we succeed in this partnership," said: Pankaj Patel, CMD, Zydus Cadila and Co-chair of India- Israel CEO Forum over the conversation.

The case of Israel’s drinking water solutions firm, Watergen is worth the talk in addressing India’s drinking water challenges. Watergen offers low-cost, energy efficient, clean and safe drinking “water from the air”. Signing MoU with Tata, during the ongoing visit of PM Netanyahu, it said the firm’s large scale atmospheric water generators can produce up to 6000 liters of water from air every day. Tata is geared to scale up. Indian government can scale it up. Can It?

Startups and innovation ecosystem

It is the refreshing and a welcome shift from the usual exchange of guarded words between the leaders of two nations. The talk of Big Data, AI (artificial intelligence), Drones and Analytics give us an impression of a new era. Though, the world is doing, we still hang onto to the back office works of maintenance of large corporations overseas. We are clearly not an innovator. We are not even under 50 in Innovation Index survey by Bloomberg. Our cheap young IT resources are largely herded into the technology laggards-called BPOs. Rest, and the brightest still looks west.

“So, the main job of the leaders of both India and Israel is to reduce this bureaucracy, to cut it, as I call it, with a machete, with an axe, so that the firms can go on with their business of doing business. This gives strength. We've done this in Israel. We've transformed an economy that was very centralized and very bureaucratized into a free market economy that allows the technological genius of our people and our young people to flower. This is what starts the startups”, Netanyahu explained the story behind Israel success.

Startups are made by young people, thousands of them. The minute we create this climate, this climate of creativity and entrepreneurship, the talents break forth. Israel has achieved that transition to a more liberal economy. “The exponential growth that you talked about is achieved today by the confluence of Big Data, connectivity and artificial intelligence. The countries that will seize the future are those that will innovate along these lines. The future belongs to those who innovate. Those who innovate will innovate in freer market terms. And this is what we all must do. We're doing it. India is doing it”, he said while linking the potential that India can harvest.

Nasscom inked an agreement with startup accelerator MassChallenge Israel, committing scholarship support of $5,000 each for up to 10 Indian startups. In addition to that, a ‘Trilateral Fund’ of USD 50 million has also been created by Israel-India Technology Group(I-ITG) to promote entrepreneurship and trilateral business opportunities between India, Israel and US.

In September of 2017, the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi hosted the “Start India” competition in conjunction with the Indian Government’s Department of Science & Technology (DST). The competition searched for India’s most promising startup to represent India in Israel’s biggest international startup competition, Start JLM. Start JLM brings entrepreneurs from 40 countries to Israel to participate in an all expenses boot camp for early-stage startups. Indian startup Mimyk which focuses on virtual reality methods for training doctors in endoscopy procedures went on to compete in the Start JLM competition in November of 2017. This is the kind of platform that pushes the boundary for innovation and brings you on par with the best.

Defence, Aerospace, Homeland & Cyber Security

Though, Indian has recently called off the deal worth USD 500 million with Israel Spike anti-tank guided missile, it did not dampen the visit. Already, India buys average of USD1 billion worth military equipment from Israel each year. Even, Chief of the Army Staff General Bipin Rawat has already hinted the possibility of reviving the deal. Though, there was no high-stake deal signed and the defense was not the part of baritone, it is the undercurrent of deeper understanding of Israel about this partnership. It is worth noting that during the Kargil war, Israel had offered unconditional support to India, asking to supply critical military components without any immediate payment. No question, it was the winning gesture from Israel.

There is no denying that Israel is India’s strategic partners addressing the criticality of India’s security concerns. There is no denying that Israel is India’s strategic partners addressing the criticality of India’s security concerns. As PM Modi recently pointed out the malaise of India being number one importer of defense and set target to bring about drastic change in our capability to reduce it by 70 percent within a decade. In all pragmatism, if a country, who is willing to share at advance level, that is Israel.

“If India must emerge as a regional power, we need to engage with West Asia from multiple angle and multiple domain with strategic aims and objective. Israel balances our relations in West Asia”, said Maj Gen(Retd) Prof Govind Dwivedi. He further adds: “it is not a zero-sum game."

With the Israel PM Netanyahu’s visit, we have shed our inhibitions towards Israel. It is also not about ignoring our position on Palestine or our vital interests in the Arab world, besides Iran. India is well on track to fully normalize the relations with Israel. Away from geopolitical paradox, Israel has the potential that could open a wider area of advance research and subsequent collaboration in field of applied science and technology. Defense is just the foundation. An entire mass of innovation -that is Israel’s unique proposition- worth emulating for India. Meeting with the brightest mind in Israel, Shifran, a bright and young scientist in Tel Aviv had confided to me: “I really feel, I could help India remove poverty; I know that India is the country where we were never persecuted, and we head straight to India and feel home after our mandatory military days." India must take it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Manish Kumar Jha

The author writes on the foreign affairs, diplomacy and international trade and investment. His global coverage spans more than 30 countries worldwide

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