Modi In Israel: Fulfilling Nehru’s Promise

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India's first Prime Minister, Nehru, made a promise to visit Israel. Six decades later, Modi is fulfilling that promise.

Since 1950, India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine was to be as inoffensive as possible to either side. But in early days, India voted against Israel in the United Nations and supported a separate Palestinian state.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said: 

We would have [recognised Israel] long ago, because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries.

Israel, on the other hand, always saw India as a potential friend. But Nehru did not pay a visit, despite promising to do so during his 1956 tour of the Middle East. Nehru had visited Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon but not Israel.

Years later, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, remembered how Nehru broke his promise. Relations between the countries stayed informal, and the nations built strong military ties over a common antagonism with Pakistan. Formal relations were only established in 1992.

July of 2017 will mark the long-awaited fulfilment of a promise Nehru made to Ben-Gurion many years ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be the first head of state from India to visit Israel in history. 

It’s a paradigm shift in India-Israel relations. But, it’s worth noting that the two shared extensive military and scientific ties even before this visit. How can Modi build upon a great foundation?

Lessons from Israeli startups

Both India and Israel have experienced rapid economic growth in the last two decades. Israel is a global startup capital. After Silicon Valley, Israel’s “Silicon Wadi” is the most lucrative startup ecosystem in the world.

What makes Israel unique is its focus on Research and Development (R&D). There are more people engaged in R&D per capita than anywhere else in the world.  A curious side effect of mandatory conscription in the Armed Forces is that innovators are never too far removed from military generals who can place orders for the latest tech. Even Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, launched a fund to back start-ups in areas such as encryption and robotics; investing in technology, seeking new methods of ‘summarising documents, cataloguing information and extracting semantic connections using machine learning’. For a country hemmed in on all sides by varying degrees of hostility, Israel has managed to make itself a thriving fortress economy.

India, blessed with a far greater abundance of resources and manpower, will be hoping to replicate Israel’s success model. India also experienced a boom in startups and is currently the world’s top destination for Engineering Research & Development (ER&D) investment. But for India, the momentum may already be fading.

Suffice to say, Israel has become an exporter of startups. In many ways, Israel’s disadvantages prompted their miraculous growth. Israel has what Malcolm Gladwell calls “the advantages of disadvantages”. Playing the role of David versus the Goliath around it, Israel was forced to innovate and stay high-tech in order to survive.

In 2016, Bilateral trade between India and Israel stood at $4.167 billion. India is Israel’s second largest trading partner in Asia – the first being China. Diamonds constituted half of all trade in 2010.

Modi and his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu are expected to discuss building ties in defence, water and agriculture. In all three of these sectors, Israel has achieved a high degree of self-reliance. In agriculture, Israel achieves some of the world’s highest yields per hectare in both farm products and milk production. Israel agreed to set up 26 centres of excellence providing technical expertise across India, with 15 already completed.

Israel’s real offering for the 21st century is in the sphere of water management. Israel treats 86 percent of its wastewater; leading the world in water efficiency. The country’s desalination technologies have made it an oasis in the desert; with more water than demand. Scaling desalination technology to India’s requirements could be a vital card in tackling South Asia’s looming water crisis.

Coming together

The real takeaway from Modi’s visit will be the symbolic cementing of ties. Netanyahu is expected to return the favour with a reciprocal visit to India by the end of the year. But what happens to India’s Palestinian policy?

The current administration has aggressively gone after many legacies of the Nehruvian era. But parts of its foreign policy, including support for Palestine, seem to have changed little. Prior to meeting Netanyahu this year, Modi met the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. At this meeting, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj pledged India’s commitment to “a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, coexisting peacefully with Israel.”

In 1947, Nehru strongly believed that while the Jews had holy roots in Palestine, they could not occupy it at the cost of the local Arabs. He was particularly against the Partition of Palestine, on ethical grounds based on his ongoing battle with Partition in India. To convince him of Israel’s cause, Albert Einstein wrote to the statesmen. The two exchanged letters, but ultimately, opinions did not change.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to intermediate between India and Israel establishing natural ties today. Against the backdrop of a tense border stand-off with China, India will need to better its relations with one of its staunchest defence partners. Modi’s visit is historic, and hopefully, will be the first of many.

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