Emerging Indo-Israel Bonhomie

Jordanian King Abdullah II may visit India before Indian PM’s maiden trip to Tel Aviv

By Shankar Kumar

Long and thick curtain of speculations on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much expected visit to Israel are going to be lifted soon. If India’s Israel-based ambassador Pavan Kapoor’s interview to ‘Ynet,’ a news portal, is to be believed, the first ever prime ministerial trip to Tel Aviv would take place sometime in June-July this year. This visit has been in the air ever since Narendra Modi became the head of BJP-led NDA government in May 2014 and received congratulatory call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the first world leaders to invite Modi to become his country’s state guest. In October 2015, giving India-Israel ties a priority, the Modi government facilitated first ever Presidential visit to the West Asian nation when Pranab Mukherjee landed at Tel Aviv.

To offset any kind of public criticism back home, the presidential visit also covered Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority. The high profile visit was followed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s two-day official trip to the two West Asian nations in January 2016. In the same year, making a return call to President Mukherjee’s visit, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin undertook a six-day visit to India from November 15 to 20. While this exchange of leadership visits between the two nations raised the bar for their enhanced bilateral engagement, what has, however, added fizz in their ties is Israel’s stand to provide cutting edge technology to India and make defense production under ‘Make in India’ banner. Examples of this unflinching commitment can be seen in the production MR-SAM (the medium range surface to air defense missile) by the DRDO and Israeli Aircraft Industry. Recently the government cleared the acquisition of the air defense system, capable enough to shoot down enemy aircraft, drones, surveillance aircraft and AWACS planes at the strike range of 50 to 70 km in the sky.

If sources are to be believed, India is expected to receive the visit of Jordanian King Abdullah II before Prime Minister Modi undertakes his maiden trip to Israel. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is also expected to visit India this year, but sources have not yet confirmed as to when he is landing in New Delhi.  Nonetheless, India’s balancing act in the Middle-East and the West Asia region has received a fillip in the past few years. Amid this, it is Jordan which is seen as focal point of India’s West Asia policy. Despite being not economically and militarily as powerful as Saudi Arabia, Jordan works as a bridge between Israel and Sunni-dominated Arab world. On October 26, 1994, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan became only the second Arab country after Egypt to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Since then there have been several ups and down in their mutual understanding, yet neither Jordan nor Israel have done anything that could jeopardize their bilateral engagement. The Hashemite Kingdom singed a 15-year gas deal of worth $10 billion with Israel in October last year, while Tel Aviv, accepting friendly gesture from Amman, announced giving 1,500 work permits for Jordanians to work in Eilat, an Israeli city off the coast of Aqaba on the Dead Sea. These developments allow India to fix tapestry woven around its West Asia strategy. Pranab Mukherjee’s landing in Amman as President before his scheduled visit to Palestine and Israel in October 2015, indicates it fully. It was the first ever presidential visit to Jordan, although the two nations have maintained diplomatic relations since 1947.  Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had visited Jordan in 1988, while Jordanian King Abdullah along with Queen Rania had last visited India in 2006.

In route to his Israel visit, Prime Minister Modi, say sources, is expected to undertake a trip to Egypt or Tunisia too. Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar’s three-day visit to Tunisia from February 26 is considered to be a trip taken to do spade work before the Prime Minister’s likely visit to Tunisia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has already visited India twice–first for New Delhi hosted third Africa summit in 2015 and second, in September 2016, on a bilateral visit. From India side, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj undertook a two-day visit to Egypt in August 2015. It was followed by Egyptian National Security Adviser Fayza Abul-Naga’s quiet, unpublicized visit to India in December 2015 to hold talks with NSA Ajit Doval.

It is believed that following the prime ministerial visit to West Asian nations, including Israel in mid of this year, the on-going intelligence cooperation with Israel, Palestine, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordon against terrorism will receive a boost. It should be noted that with Israel especially, India’s engagement lies within the framework of security and technology.  Particularly in defence, India is serious to fill the gaping hole in critical areas of radar and stealth technology. Tel Aviv has shown interest in addressing India’s concern in these areas. Israel had participated in New Delhi-held Defence Expo 2014 where 21 Israeli defence production companies showcased their cutting-edge solutions. Then in MIXiii-2014 conducted by the Israeli government to display the country’s expertise in innovative technology, Indian officials had shown inclination for collaboration in technology of strategic importance. “There is excellent cutting-edge technology to be found in Israel,” a South Block official maintained, indicating that the new dispensation in Delhi is also keen to see that $ 40 million fund that India and Israel set up for joint collaboration in the fields like defence, agriculture, science and technology, water treatment and others, serve its meaningful purposes. During Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit last year, Tel Aviv had shown interest in partnering with New Delhi on its flagship schemes of Make in India, Digital India, Skill India and Smart Cities. It is expected that these issues will once again be raised with Israel when Modi undertakes his much talked about visit to the country.

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