A second glimpse of how strong India-Israel relations are will be got over the next six days as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu starts his first visit to India on Sunday. A road show in Gujarat, visit to Agra, a meet-up with Bollywood stars, reviving defence deals, and a much anticipated gift by PM Netanyahu for PM Narendra Modi are the talking points of the visit so far. Last year, when PM Modi visited Israel, the message was sent loud and clear that India-Israel share a friendship that they no longer need to keep under wraps. However, in December last year, when India voted in favour of the UN resolution on Jerusalem, taking a stand against Israel’s claim over the disputed city, concerns were raised if India and Israel will continue to have smooth bilateral relations.
Notwithstanding such concerns, PM Netanyahu made his view clear that trade relations between the two nations will not be affected. On Wednesday, PM Netanyahu had said while addressing the Government Press Office’s annual end-of-year reception for foreign press corps in Israel: “Well, I would have preferred a different vote to be frank, but I don’t think it materially changes the tremendous flowering of relations between India and Israel. I think everybody can see that. Modi’s visit was a very important milestone in that. My visit to India is the other one.”
To ensure a smooth visit, security in the national capital has been increased in coordiantion with local security agencies. A seven-layer security ring has been created, augmented by heavy commando deployment. A special unit has been set up to monitor kitchen supplies for Netanyahu. Special controls have been deployed over telecommunications that can lead to some disruptions for citizens. PM Netanyahu will travel with a full component of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, and members of Yamas, Israel’s undercover special counter-terrorism unit. Prime Minister Modi will escort Netanyahu from the airport in Ahmedabad in an open-top Gypsy decorated with flowers for the nine-km ride to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram that will constitute the much talked about road show. Netanyahu is going to spend a day in PM Modi’s home state on 17 January. PM Modi’s office had come up with the idea of a joint road show with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in Gujarat last September for a function to formally start work on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project. They had spent time at the Sabarmati riverfront, with PM Modi playing the tour guide to Shinzo Abe and his wife.
It is expected that PM Netanyahu will present a gift to the PM. When PM Modi went to Israel, the two leaders sat in a desalination vehicle which can purify 20,000 litres of sea water daily and 80,000 litres of muddy and contaminated river water daily. Netanyahu might gift that vehicle to Modi, as a powerful symbol of where bilateral relations are headed.
However, the Ministry of External Affairs here did not confirm any such news and said that exchanging of gifts is a common practice on such occasions and whether the leaders choose to do it in public view is a different matter.
This visit is also expected to straighten things out between the two nations for the $500 million order to buy Israel’s spike anti-tank guided missiles that India had cancelled recently. Israel’s state-owned defence contractor Rafael announced on 3 January that India cancelled the order to instead opt for home-made anti-tank missiles. India is Israel’s biggest arms market, buying around $1 billion worth of weapons every year. Despite the cancellation of the missile deal, the Ministry of Defence said this month it had cleared a plan worth $72 million to buy 131 Barak surface-to-air missiles built by Rafael.
PM Netanyahu is also expected to meet Bollywood bigwigs to encourage them to shoot films in Israel and strengthen people-to-people relations between the two countries. With a 30-member delegation from 102 Israeli companies, the two nations are set to boost trade ties and open investment opportunities. Over the last 25 years, bilateral trade between the two countries has increased from $200 million to over $4 billion (excluding defence) in 2016-17. Still, given India’s large market and huge consumer base, the numbers are low compared to India’s economic relations with other countries. Deals and joint investments in areas ranging from defence to renewable energy are also expected.