As Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his trip to Israel, many await the outcome of this historic visit. Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to ever visit Israel and symbolically, will not stop to visit the Palestinian Authority while in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rumoured to share a good personal chemistry with Modi and has tweeted warmly, welcoming the Indian leader to Israel. Netanyahu has cleared his schedule for the two days Modi is in Jerusalem and plans to spend the entire time in discussions with him.
Ahead of Modi's visit, the Israeli cabinet has proposed several measures to strengthen relations with India. They include a joint fund to encourage Indo-Israeli business cooperation, an expansion of cooperation in water management and agriculture, and the promotion of tourism. There is already some speculation about several arms deals the Indian Prime Minister will also be signing during his trip.
There is no question that relations between India and Israel have been on an upward trajectory for at least the past decade and have achieved an even steeper gradient since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. Trade has increased, as has cooperation in the realm of security and neither show any signs of slowing down in the near future. As Israel's ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, prophesied about his country's ties with India, the best is yet to come.
However, the ambassador also made a perceptive point in an interview with the Indian media: for relations to become truly strategic or special, they must move beyond the purely transactional sphere. Towards this end, Carmon pointed to the cooperation between his country and his host country in agriculture and water management. Such interactions bring what Israel has to offer to the doorstep of every Indian. Nonetheless, there is yet tremendous scope for the blossoming of Indo-Israeli relations at the non-governmental level.
The truly special relationship between the two states in the modern era must be similar to the one shared by the United States and Britain. Srdjan Vucetic, a professor at the University of Ottawa, makes a compelling case that this relationship was based, at least initially and for a substantial period, on racial affinity than a congruence of interests and values. India does not share any racial kinship with Israel or the Jewish people. Regardless, the Anglosphere is a good example of what harmonious relations should look like. Despite their differences, the five countries - America, Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand - have supported each other diplomatically on the international stage; Australia has even provided soldiers for every major conflict the United States has found itself in.
Not bound by race or even a shared history, India and Israel can nonetheless base their bond over the fact that the former remains one of the few, perhaps the only, major country that has never had anti-Semitism in its history. This, combined with the obvious strategic imperative and economic opportunities should serve to foster people-to-people relations between Indians and Israelis. While political pressures will motivate strategic cooperation and economic realities will propel trade on their own, both governments must make an effort to encourage cultural connections. This is best done through education, tourism and the arts.
India may not have too many universities that Israeli students might be interested in, but it still has a few good medical and engineering colleges, at least at the undergraduate level. Scholarships should be created for Israelis wishing to study at these institutes, with opportunities for work-study and internships. There is no substitute for living in a country for four years or more to become familiar with its work ethic, politics, and culture. Similarly, avenues should be created to facilitate Indian students who wish to study at Israeli universities or intern at their think tanks. Already, hundreds of thousands of Indians seek intellectual enrichment in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia; there is no reason Israel cannot be a destination for Indian scholars, especially given its reputation in information technology, trauma medicine, artificial intelligence, and robotics.
University exchange programmes — for lecturers as well as students — may well serve in improving Indian education. An inflow of foreign students could increase pressure to update curricula, spark off research programmes, improve university governance, and ameliorate financial woes. The power of educational exchanges must not be underestimated — the role played by the British Rhodes scholarship and the American Fulbright Programme in influencing young minds world over in the Anglo-American way of thinking comes to mind.
Another important industry that is open to more than just young scholars is tourism. Both Israel and India are ancient cultures with histories that go back at least five millennia. Several historical sites in both countries are even dated several millennia earlier. More than for just history buffs, India also offers a bewildering array of cuisines and terrain that will excite and enthral tourists. Israel's beaches and adventure sports are similarly a powerful draw for visitors. While Israel has already started to entice Indians to tour its treasures, there is much for India to do on this front. Cleanliness, adequate bathroom facilities, and protection of the monuments from the picnicking masses would be a start; accurate information in multiple languages available online and multilingual tour guides would be another measure to bring Indian tourism to even basic standards. On the larger scale, lodging and transportation at tourist destinations need to be improved.
About 40,000 Israelis visit India every year. Most of them are young people who have just finished their mandatory military service, have financial constraints as they are yet to start working, and prefer the peace and quiet of remote towns in the foothills of the Himalayas than Ellora, Khajuraho, or the Taj Mahal, at least initially. Better connectivity and infrastructure in these areas might not only persuade more Israelis to visit India (rather than South America, the other favourite destination after military service), but entice them to stay longer. Better upkeep of tourist destinations may not immediately interest this crowd but it will attract their parents — who may have spent six to 12 months of their youth in India too — to make a second trip to India. More importantly, development of tourist places is not an Israel-specific project but will make India's attractions bearable for people all around the world.
Towards bettering tourism traffic, both countries could take several steps in making travel easier. First, visas can be made easier to apply for via an online application process that accepts scanned documents as well as the application form. Two, criteria for tourist visas can be relaxed. Three, keeping in mind the nature of Israeli tourism to India, the period of e-tourist visas can be extended to a year. All these steps would be towards the eventual goal of eliminating the requirement for visas for tourist travel between the two countries. Admittedly, some of these measures have been partially put in place. However, there remains much progress to be made.
Additionally, connectivity between India and Israel stands to be substantially improved. There is only one carrier that flies directly between Israel and India — that is the Israeli airline El Al, with two weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Mumbai. Such things are largely commercially influenced, but it is not inconceivable that additional carriers operating at least weekly from India's IT hub, Bangalore, and Delhi might find passengers.
On the cultural front, Delhi and Jerusalem must do more to promote their music, art, literature, and language in each other's countries. There is some very intelligent Israeli cinema and theatre that have not made it to India except, perhaps, on torrents, because of the language barrier. Sponsoring tours by theatre groups and promoting foreign language films can be a great way to expose Indians and Israelis to each other's societies. As the French have their Alliance Française and the Germans their Goethe-Institut, Israel could promote Hebrew via its literature and philosophy. Stronger business and educational ties will spur an interest in learning Hebrew among Indians. Similarly, India can promote Sanskrit and Indian philosophy in Israel, which, for some odd reason, seems to have a fair number of people interested in Indian thought and literature.
It must be remembered that culture is by its very nature an elite preoccupation and will not have too many takers. However, the rewards will be ample from those who do take advantage of the new options and become ambassadors of their culture to the other. What makes it worse is that unlike defence or economics, culture remains ambiguous both in its promotion and reception. It is not possible to have clear metrics of investments to results, it is perfectly possible that some visitors either to India or to Israel had some personal experiences that left them with a bitter taste of the other's culture. One only hopes that familiarity breeds brotherhood.
Over the next decade of Indo-Israeli ties, both Delhi and Jerusalem must indeed strengthen defence cooperation in terms of sales, joint ventures, and manufacturing. On the economic front, the free trade agreement that has been languishing in the doldrums since 2004 would be a welcome catalyst to increasing trade. However, the absolute numbers will not be much — Israel is only slightly larger than Nagaland with the population of Bengaluru — but the value will be in the reliability of the relationship. It is the people-to-people connections that will ultimately be the bedrock of ties and give meaning beyond the mundane. Unlike security and trade, culture needs support, encouragement and nurture. This should be the next focus in both capitals.
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