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Tech, security, agriculture top Modi talks in Israel

First trip by an Indian leader marks 25 years of diplomatic ties

Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he will not continuing on to the Palestinian territories. (Courtesy of Press Information Bureau)

NEW DELHI -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi is spending three days in Israel to mark a quarter century of normalized diplomatic relations and boost cooperation in areas including security, space exploration, technology and agriculture.

Making the first trip to the country by an Indian prime minister, Modi arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday and was received by Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We've been waiting for you a long time," Netanyahu said. "We've been waiting almost 70 years, in fact, because yours is truly a historic visit."

"In our path of sustained high growth and all-round development, India counts Israel amongst its important partners," Modi said.

The two leaders are expected to discuss cooperation on Wednesday in areas that will help create a "new India" with improved railways, roads, waterways, fiber optics and other infrastructure.

"Our path is reform, perform, transform -- that is how we will scale new heights," Modi told Israel's Channel 2 in Hindi ahead of his visit. "India is a country with great potential, and we want to focus on the next-generation infrastructure."

Israel, Modi told the channel, is closely identified with sophisticated agriculture, innovation, technology, startups, space and optimum resource utilization. "All of these things gel with India," he said. "These things will help us grow -- working shoulder to shoulder with Israel."

Without specifying the deals expected to be signed during the visit, B. Bala Bhaskar, a joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, recently told reporters that there is scope in many areas. "We are continuously working to diversify and strengthen" bilateral cooperation, he said, noting three years of high-level exchanges. Bhaskar said Israel has expressed "great willingness" to participate in such initiatives as Make in India, which aims to develop the country as a manufacturing hub, and Digital India, to evolve a knowledge economy. With Israel's help, India has already established 25 centers for agricultural excellence to boost rural productivity.

Horse (and diamond) trading

Modi wrote on Facebook that he will join leading Indian and Israeli business figures and startups to discuss a "shared priority" of expanding business and investment. "I hope to get insights into Israel's accomplishments in technology and innovation through on-site visits," he wrote.

India's trade with Israel amounted to $4.16 billion last year. Trade in diamonds accounts for more than half, with recent growth in agriculture, information technology and pharmaceuticals. Bhaskar said around 20% of phosphate imports now come from Israel, making it an important contributor to the energy sector.

Israeli businesses have invested in real estate, renewable energy, telecommunications and water management, but investment has also flowed the other way. Israeli drip irrigation company NaanDan was taken over by Jain Irrigation Systems. Sun Pharmaceutical Industries has a controlling stake in Taro Pharmaceutical, while Triveni Engineering & Industries is invested in wastewater treatment concern Aqwise.

Tata Consultancy Services began Israeli operations in 2005, and State Bank of India opened a Tel Aviv branch in 2007. Such Indian IT majors as Infosys, Wipro and Tech Mahindra have also invested during the last two years.

Courting the 'mistress'

Modi will not visit the Palestinian city of Ramallah, unlike President Pranab Mukherjee in 2015 and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj last year. U.S. President Donald Trump also visited both Israel and Palestinian territory in May.

Analysts note that previous Indian governments have shied away from developing an overt relationship with Israel in the interests of relations with other Middle Eastern governments. There are also domestic sensitivities, given that about 15% of India's population of 1.25 billion is Muslim.

"Israel has long complained that India treats it like a mistress: glad to partake of its defense and technology charms, but a little embarrassed about the whole thing and unwilling to make the relationship too public," an opinion columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently wrote.

Pankaj Jha, a professor in defense and strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, said Israel is no longer core to every regional issue. "There are much bigger issues that the Arab world is facing," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"India has the best of relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE," Jha said. "It is basically the opportune time for it to also mend fences with Israel."

"Necessity is the mother of relationships," he said of Modi's decision to skip the Palestinian territories. India sees potential threats in China and Pakistan, and needs surveillance tech. This includes geostationary satellites to monitor borders and drones for areas with insurgencies. Jha sees plenty of scope for Israel in terms of aerospace, cybersecurity and nanotechnology.

"We have been using their drones for monitoring certain areas for quite some time, but these do not have long endurance," said Jha, who noted that "we are looking for highly sophisticated drones and want to upgrade our technologies."

"The amount of intelligence that Israel has gathered with regard to Islamic State will be of immense help to our intelligence and security agencies," he said.

Israel, meanwhile, can help India in such digital initiatives as protecting biometric information associated with the Aadhaar national ID cards. These cards, each with a 12-digit identification number, are currently being linked to people's bank accounts and need robust data protection mechanisms in the long run.

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