Bilateral relations are now deepening, impacting human lives at the basic level. After agriculture, it is shared COVID-19 management protocols
A special flight equipped with medical equipment and advanced technological treatments for Coronavirus flew to India from Tel Aviv last week. Also on board were defence and security experts as well as Israeli diplomats returning to their embassies and consulates in the region. The Israeli team will join hands with researchers in India to develop a rapid testing solution for COVID-19. Dozens of sophisticated ventilators, which were loaded onto the special flight before take-off, made the name of the mission that much more meaningful: Breathing Space.
Israel went out of its way to approve the export and transfer of these ventilators to India, while both countries continue to fight against the spread of the virus. Israel’s exceptional gesture was a welcome “thank you” to India, which just a few months ago sent medicine and other essential diagnostic equipment, in severe global shortage at the time, to Israel. In this way, Israel and India successfully transformed this unprecedented global pandemic into an opportunity to assist one another and enhance their relations.
The Israel-India relationship has improved dramatically over the past several years. It’s hard to believe that just three decades ago, Indian passports were valid “for every country except Israel.” Today, India has become one of our most significant friendships in the Asian region. The scope of mutual trade between the two countries has grown from approximately $200 million in 1992 to some $4 billion in 2018.
Since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s first historic visit to India in 2003, Israeli and Indian Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers have enjoyed a host of bilateral visits and discussions. One of the first discussions Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi held upon entering his new role was with his Indian counterpart, Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar.
Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Benny Gantz, too, had a word with Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, expressing hope that the strong bilateral ties between the two countries would contribute significantly to the global efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. These are just some of the indicators of the surge that has occurred in relations between the two countries since diplomatic ties were fully established in 1992.
This upward trend has yielded success in other fields as well. Although it’s difficult to imagine direct flights while living under the cloud of COVID-19, Air India’s direct flight between New Delhi and Tel Aviv, inaugurated two years ago, minimises flight duration by flying over Saudi Arabia. This contributes towards the normalisation of Israel’s ties with the Arab world and as such, assists Israel in achieving its strategic goal of improving its relations with the region.
Other flights — El Al to Mumbai, Arkia flights to Goa and Cochin — are an important bridge between Israel and India. This bridge is further strengthened by a visa relief policy for Indian citizens, which saw the number of Indian tourists visiting Israel grow from 16,000 in 2000 to over 70,000 in 2018.
One of India’s most critical national security challenges is the provision of food security to its immense population. Israel’s Foreign Ministry has consistently invested a tenth of the Agency for International Development’s (MASHAV) budget into India for several years now. This has financed the establishment of more than 28 “Excellency Centres” across the many States that make up India. These centres serve as agricultural “demonstration” farms, introducing Israeli experts and innovative Israeli technologies to Indian farmers.
During his last visit to India in January 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his home State of Gujarat. In an exceptionally moving moment, hundreds of farmers rushed to meet them and share their personal stories. One after another, they recounted how their fields’ crop yields had improved by a hundred per cent following their training at Israel’s Excellence Centres.
Relations between Israel and India clearly don’t just exist between Governments but also between societies. The Israel-India relationship has permeated all elements of Indian society, including that of the 650 million Indian citizens who make a living from agriculture and who represent half of the workforce in India.
Israel’s contributions have also risen to prominence in fields ranging from health, security, industry and more. Most critical on our shared agenda, however, is water and Israel is uniquely placed to provide solutions to the critical water shortage issue that India faces. Both countries share a deep and mutual appreciation for the benefits that their joint collaboration brings them at the community level.
Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, India is assuming its role as a regional and world power and our diplomacy has succeeded in showing India the many advantages that can come from strengthening its ties with Israel. The Foreign Ministry is determined to cultivating its ties with India to ensure that our relations continue to thrive in the future.
(The writer is Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs)