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January 26, 2015 / 6 Shevat, 5775
 
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Israel Buoyed By Election Of Old Friend In India

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

Like the rest of the BJP, Modi “understands that Israel needs India for political reasons as a strategic ally, something that wasn’t there before, because India needed the oil of Arab countries, including Iran,” Bernstein-Reich said.

With his anti-terror attitude, Modi “will want to keep Israel close to him and not at a distance, like the Congress Party did,” she added.

Bernstein-Reich, who has worked as a technology entrepreneur in India and Israel for the past 17 years, met with Modi during his visit to Israel in 2007 as part of a high-tech agricultural conference. Modi, who served as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat from 2001-2014, forged strong ties with Israeli businesses during that time. India has a decentralized form of government, in which individual states and their leadership can develop economic and bilateral ties with foreign nations.

Under Modi’s leadership, Israeli companies poured billions of dollars of investment into Gujarat in areas like industrial research, solar and thermal power, pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, and water recycling and desalination plants.

“Modi understands what Israel can give to India technology-wise,” Bernstein-Reich said.

On the other hand, while Indo-Israeli economic ties have grown significantly, to nearly $5 billion, bilateral trade between the nations has recently stagnated.

“There has been steady growth, but not enough in recent years because of the recession,” said Bernstein-Reich.

Additionally, one of the outstanding issues that Modi inherits as India’s new leader will be finalizing a Free Trade Agreement with Israel.

The Free Trade Agreement has been under negotiation for the past three years, and Bernstein-Reich explained that although the Congress Party was very friendly toward Israel, officials “took their time” on the trade pact.

Bernstein-Reich predicts that once the agreement is signed, bilateral trade will increase substantially.

“It will be a unique agreement with India that will give special benefits to businesses in both countries,” she said.

Modi, meanwhile, has garnered significant attention for his strong Hindu nationalism, resulting in criticism from the West, especially for Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. Yet his views in that area may also allow him form an ideological bond with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is similarly chastised in some Western countries.

Shortly after Modi’s victory, Netanyahu spoke with him and expressed his desire to “deepen and develop” bilateral ties.

One of Modi’s first public gestures as prime minister was to visit the Ganges River, one of holiest places in Hinduism, where he promised to restore the heavily polluted river to its former glory. Over the years, Netanyahu has taken a similar approach, focusing on securing Israel’s Jewish heritage sites and insisting that Jerusalem remain under Jewish sovereignty.

Modi is also surrounding himself with like-minded ministers who admire Israel and its values.

“Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is a big fan of Israel and enhanced diplomatic ties is expected,” Ningthoujam said.

Swaraj, who is the first woman to hold the post in India, has called herself a “strong fan” of Israel and a “strong admirer” of the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. She has also visited Israel and served as chairwoman of the Indo-Israel parliamentary friendship group in 2008.

Already, Swaraj’s Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has reached out to her. The two foreign ministers acknowledged the “great importance” of Indo-Israeli bilateral relations.

“The fruitful cooperation between the two nations contributes greatly to tremendously important spheres of collaboration, including agriculture, water, research and development and more,” said a press statement from Swaraj.

Despite its size and natural resources, India has in recent years failed to keep pace with the advancements of China and other major Asian countries, as corruption and political divisions have caused economic stagnation. Many hope Modi will give a much-needed boost to India in order for the country to compete globally. For tiny Israel, meanwhile, strengthening ties with major Asian nations is an important part of its 21st-century strategy.

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