India and Israel to ‘re-accelerate’ work to strengthen strategic relations: Israeli Foreign Minister

Jerusalem: Expressing “great satisfaction” at the achievements of 30 years of full diplomatic ties between India and Israel, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has said that it is time for the two nations to “re-accelerate” their relations in various fields to strengthen the strategic partnership.

Just ahead of his three-day visit starting on Tuesday, Cohen told PTI that the visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in 2017 and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to India in 2018 helped bring the bilateral relations to “new heights of cooperation, understanding and even deepened the friendship not only between the governments but also between the peoples”.

“We expect that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to India later this year will continue the momentum in relations both in the areas in which I will be engaged during my visit and in other areas”, he said.

India and Israel have seen an intense last few months of engagement starting with the visit of Knesset’s (Israeli parliament) Speaker Amir Ohana at the end of March followed by the visit of Minister of Economy Nir Barkat in April and now comes the visit of the Israeli Foreign Minister in quick succession.

The visits are being seen as a build-up to the much-anticipated visit of Netanyahu towards the end of this year.

“Indeed, we are at a stage where we are re-accelerating relations between the two countries after certain delays during the COVID period. Last year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic relations. We are greatly satisfied with our great achievements during this period and now is the time to look forward and strengthen the strategic relations between the countries,” Cohen said.

This visit is an opportunity to promote economic and cultural issues and even inaugurate the Jewish path in Mumbai, he listed as the main issues on the agenda of his visit.

The Jewish Path, or the “Jewish Trail”, is an initiative under which important Jewish monuments in Mumbai have been identified and will be opened to tourists around the world.

Jewish people have been living in Maharashtra for more than two thousand years and have always taken pride in the lack of anti-semitism in India.

Looking to utilise both the countries’ proven track record as knowledge economies with robust start-ups ecosystem, special emphasis in discussions will be given to the field of innovation with an emphasis on water management, agriculture, health, climate, and education.

“Agreements are expected to be signed in the field of water technologies and the centers of excellence that Israel operates together with the Indian authorities”, the Israeli Foreign Minister noted.

“The potential for growth in the field of innovation between Israel and India is immense,” he said.

“Further, there is a great potential for cooperation on cleantech technologies and renewable energy on a bilateral level as well as multilateral forums like the I2U2,” Cohen emphasised.

Israel has played an important role in India’s agricultural sector by opening Centers of Excellence and has recently appointed a dedicated water attaché at its mission in Delhi realising the huge potential for collaboration in these fields.

Beyond bilateral cooperation, the two countries have also been working with the United Arab Emirates and the United States in a grouping termed I2U2, looking to harness the partner members’ strength to promote their global footprint together.

Cohen said that “India has a significant contribution to this important platform that supports peace and stability in the region”.

The I2U2 was launched during Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Israel in October 2021 when the foreign ministers of the four countries laid down the basic principles of taking this alliance forward with the Foreign Ministers of UAE and the US participating virtually.

“The I2U2 is a central platform for regional and international cooperation. We believe that the shared knowledge of Israel and India in the fields of food security, water management and treatment in space, and of course agriculture, can allow many I2U2 projects to get underway,” Cohen believes.

He pointed out that “Israel recently proposed cooperation in a new satellite project that utilises all four strengths of the partner countries” and is excited to “imagine what the future holds in this regard”.

“The connection between Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates connects Asia and Europe and creates opportunities to strengthen the relationship between Israel and India. It brings significant achievements for all the partners’ economies”, Cohen asserted.

Acknowledging India’s fast-growing economy making it the fifth largest economy in the world, the Israeli leader said that forecasts predict that it will climb to the third spot and so Israel attaches great importance to the economic ties between the two countries.

Asked about the long pending Free Trade Agreement between the two countries, he said that it will be brought up for discussions during his visit and that there is a “strong desire to finalise it”.

“The scope for trade opportunities between our countries is huge and there is a strong desire to finalise an FTA that hopefully will further strengthen our economic ties. I am intending to raise this topic during my high-level meetings, as I believe the scope of the FTA is far larger than trade numbers. We should discuss it with the vision of Bilateral relations in mind”, he stressed.

From a humble beginning of USD 200 million in bilateral trade (primarily in diamonds) in 1992 when full diplomatic relations were established between the two countries, merchandise trade has diversified and reached USD 7.86 billion (excluding defenCe) during the period 2021–2022.

In addition, bilateral trade in services in 2021 was USD 1.1 billion and in FY 2022-23 bilateral merchandise trade from April to December 2022 stood at USD 8.09 billion (excluding defence).

With air traffic between the two countries getting a boost with the Gulf countries agreeing to open their airspace to Israeli airlines, Cohen described it as a “game changer” which also brings out India’s importance in the region.

“Although the Corona epidemic temporarily reduced the number of direct flights, now we are talking about increasing the number of flights and increasing the destinations,” Cohen noted.

“This clearly symbolises the importance of India in the context of the Abraham Accords and the relevance of India to strengthening the atmosphere of regional cooperation,” he pointed out.

“The launch of more direct flights will increase the connectivity between our nations to facilitate the movement of tourists, business people and students. This boost to regional connectivity has also benefited the people of India. The thriving Indian diaspora throughout the Gulf can now fly directly from the UAE to Israel or from Israel to Bahrain,” the minister said.

He also highlighted the immense impact it has on boosting trade relations in the region.

Cohen also intends to bring in more students from India to Israel as academic cooperation between the two countries has “inexhaustible potential”.

“We need to make a greater effort to be attractive to a larger number of Indian students. Professional officials are examining the issue with the universities and the Council for Higher Education. We are very interested in a large number of foreign students coming to Israel, and certainly students from India. This will bring the scientific communities of the two countries closer together in the long term”, he said.

Asked as to how India’s Presidency of G20 and an invite for New Delhi to the G-7 summit can be helpful in strengthening Indo-Israel ties, he said, “We are confident that the agenda that India promotes in these forums is for the benefit of the global economy, of which Israel is a part”.

“The frequent consultations between various parties in Israel and India touch on many areas, but in issues of the G20 and G7 India has a unique role also due to its size and economic strength and its international importance”, he asserted.

On India’s role in the Middle East, the Israeli foreign minister said: “Regarding India’s role in the MEA (Middle East Area), we see a growing involvement of India in many places in the world, including in the MEA, including getting closer to the United Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and more. This is definitely a positive process because, as mentioned, India has a positive influence on the atmosphere of cooperation in the region.”

On the question of defence ties and Israel’s participation in the flagship Make in India programme, Cohen said that the defence ties have been “a key pillar of the growing partnership between the two nations”.

“Our relations are based on three basic foundations: shared values, mutual interests and common challenges. With such well-synchronised defence cooperation, Israel was among the first countries to take up the call for the ‘Make in India’ initiative and start joint projects with a manufacturing base in India”, the Israeli FM emphasised.

“We have no doubt in Israel, that R&D serves as a growth engine for the local industry. That is why we are willing to create more platforms of joint R&D to pinpoint shared challenges, discuss and find solutions together, and even manufacture them together. Both sides have a lot to gain from this collaboration,” he added.