It is in the fitness of things that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first trip to West Asia is taking her to Israel and Palestine. If the bane of Indian foreign policy has been the neglect of the strategically important Middle East — even the Gulf states — much energy has been expended in keeping the bilateral relationship with Israel discreet and emphasising India’s “equidistance” from Israel and Palestine. Swaraj’s visit is only the third Indian foreign ministerial trip since the establishment of full diplomatic ties in January 1992. Yet, coming close on the heels of President Pranab Mukherjee’s October 2015 visit — the first by an Indian head of state — and Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s November 2014 trip, Swaraj’s visit assumes additional significance, also given the likelihood of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu coming to India this year and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return trip.
The bilateral relationship had almost come out in the open in 2003, during then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon’s trip to India, only to be put firmly back in the closet by the UPA that didn’t dare to talk about it in public. However, that the momentum picked up over the years was undeniable, and its effect could be felt beyond the primary, albeit unpublicised, defence and security cooperation. The Modi government’s intent, evident since India’s historic abstention from the anti-Israel UNHRC resolution in July last year, appears to be to stop being shy about Delhi’s partnership with Tel Aviv — Modi and Netanyahu had an important meeting in September 2014, on the sidelines of the UNGA — even as the NDA has found it just as necessary to tread carefully on Palestine. Modi met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York in September 2015 and, like Mukherjee, Swaraj too will begin her visit with Palestine, where India’s continued political support and developmental assistance will be re-emphasised.
This year is expected to be the breakout year for the India-Israel partnership, coming out of the closet formally. An indicator is the growing tendency to talk more openly about defence collaboration. Israel is a top technology and innovation hub, whose prowess in agriculture and water treatment is already making a difference in Indian states in terms of meeting the challenge of food and water security. Swaraj’s visit should give another push to the pending bilateral FTA, with its potential to treble the bilateral trade of approximately $5 billion, and also bring the industrial ecosystems of both countries closer. Israel, the “Start-up Nation”, is an ideal partner for “Make in India”.