The public’s excitement in Israel when U.S. President Donald Trump visited in May was immense. His visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem was covered live on television and radio, even though Trump, as expected, had nothing significant to say there. Just months into his administration, Trump’s problematic performance in office has already undermined his credibility and power, but in Israel every minute of his one-day visit was followed as if it were an event of the greatest importance.
The childish awe that accompanied the president stands in unfortunate contrast to the indifference greeting the next state visit to Israel. Unlike the Trump visit, this one will mark an historic occasion: the first-ever by the prime minister of this country. This individual presides over an economy that is growing at a dizzying pace and could one day emerge as the world’s largest. Yet days before the arrival of the world's most important prime minister – India's Narendra Modi – Israel is asleep at the watch.
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Modi arrives July 4 for his historic two-day visit. A Hindu nationalist, conservative and believer in free markets, he enjoys unprecedented popularity at home, and many say he is all but destined to be reelected in 2019. If that happens, it will be the first time in decades that an Indian government has been elected for two terms.
Modi leads what is now the world’s second-largest country in terms of population, although given current birthrate trends India will push past China within a decade for the No. 1 spot. Its economy is the world’s third largest. Over the last two years its growth rate has been among the highest on the planet, overtaking China’s pace.
His visit will have important diplomatic and defense ramifications. Despite its big numbers when it comes to size of population and GDP, India is still a poor country (ranking 131st globally for economic development). India had traditionally been part of the non-aligned bloc of nations and closer to the Soviet Union than the United States, and a firm supporter of the Palestinians.
That’s all part of the past, however. The chronic tensions with Pakistan over borders have fostered defense cooperation with Israel. The Indians are fond of pointing out that between Bangladesh and Marrakesh (in Morocco), India and Israel are only two non-Muslim states and two democracies. Notably, Modi’s two-day visit next week does not include a trip to the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah.
Although the prime minister will arrive here against a background of diplomatic and security interests, economic issues are going to be at the heart of the talks. Ahead of the visit, both countries have worked hard to prepare a roadmap of joint economic undertakings. On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved a 23-page document continuing scores of bilateral measures and a budget of 280 million shekels (about $79.6 million) – a bigger sum than Israel has ever set aside for China, Africa and Latin America combined. No fewer than 11 ministries were involved in preparing the program.
The seriousness of the effort being invested is illustrated by the fact that none of the ministries involved exploited the opportunity to condition participation in it on the creation of new jobs. India is too important to engage in that kind of bureaucratic exercise.
The centerpiece of the proposals drawn up is to deploy Israeli water and agricultural technology in India. Thanks to its monsoons, India is home to some of the rainiest places in the world, but many of its water sources are polluted. Cleaning up the Ganges River alone will be a 25-year project. The fact that Israel is a world water power – with the highest rates of recycled water, desalination and drip irrigation – has turned us into the preferred destination for Indian investments in water tech.
Modi himself reportedly sought to give priority to these kinds of projects, which are critical to India, can benefit from Israel's experience and can help India enhance its ties with Africa. Eli Groner, the director general of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, is heading a team that will advance these initiatives by linking Israeli knowhow with Indian needs in the areas of water conservation, pollution, recycling water and boosting agricultural output.
In addition, Israel's government is investing a big sum in a joint research and development fund with India. It has approved an agreement on digital-health initiatives and funding for closer academic cooperation and collaboration between the two countries’ space agencies.
On the non-tech side, Israel is undertaking a campaign to lure Bollywood producers to film in Israel, and to bring more Indian tourists to Israel. Some 20 million Indians travel abroad every year, but only 45,000 visit our shores.
Other measures being undertaken are aimed at breaking down the barriers to greater bilateral economic ties. Israeli exports to India totalled just $1.1 billion last year, not counting diamonds or defense-related goods, down from $1.7 billion in 2010 and just 2% of all Israel's exports. Indian investment here to date is a mere $17 million.
Israeli exporters complain about the difficulties of selling to India because of its onerous regulations, corruption and the division of the country into multiple jurisdictions of 29 states, each with their own policies and rules. The red tape encumbers all of the Modi government’s efforts to strengthen commercial ties with the Jewish state.
To help overcome these obstacles, the Israeli government’s proposals include steps like using advisers to help steer exporters through the system, offering export insurance, liberalizing the aviation sector and granting longer-term visas. The goal is to boost Israeli exports to India by 25% in the next four years and the number of tourists to 80,000 annually.
Given the size and complexity of the Indian market, policymakers have a difficult road ahead of them. But without a doubt the Israeli and Indian governments are committing both attention and resources to this effort. Now if only the rest of Israel could take as much interest.