Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's six-day visit to India is a historic occasion because he is only the second Israeli leader to come to India since Ariel Sharon's 2003 trip. Accompanied by a 130-member delegation comprising of individuals from agriculture, cyber and defence sectors, Netanyahu hopes to upgrade the economic cooperation between the two nations.
In an exclusive conversation with Raj Chengappa, India Today's Group Editorial Director (Publishing), the Israeli premier talked optimistically about an Indo-Israel partnership, saying that it is "a marriage made in heaven but consecrated here on earth". Among the things he hopes to concentrate on during this visit is cooperation in technological areas, especially agriculture. "Can you imagine drones for agriculture? That is what Israel can do for the Indian farm," said Netanyahu, explaining how the big data and photographs of fields collected by drones can help farmers to "direct the water to the level of the individual plant". This will, thus, help India produce more crops for less-less water, less energy. "This is using technology to change not only the future, but to change lives today to make people healthier, safer, better nursed and to live longer, better lives. This is one area I intend to concentrate on but there are many others," he added.
When asked his opinion for taking Indo-Israel relations beyond diamonds and defence, Netanyahu had a short, candid answer: Free trade agreements. Or at least, moving in that direction, as he put it. To illustrate his point, Netanyahu gave the example of the auto industry. "India has a very well-known auto industry," he said but pointed out that though Israel's auto industry was just five years old, it was already turning out to be a leader in the field. "We have 500 start-ups that just deal with automotive technology or autonomous vehicles. Because [going forward] 85% of a car is going to be software and just 15% will be hardware," he explained. In other words, cars of the future will be "basically a computer on wheels", and this is where Israel is a pioneer. "Our car industry receives billions of dollars of investments every year. Why shouldn't we have the same partnership between us and Indian car manufacturers? And this can happen everywhere, be it digital health, water, energy, transportation, IT... And all this is before you discuss security," said Netanyahu.
Last year, too, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tel Aviv, Netanyahu had spoken about "I2 T2" or Indian talent times Israeli technology being the formula for success. But the speed-breaker on promising Indo-Israel technological agreements, according to him, is bureaucracy. "We are all suffering from this malaise, this disease of bureaucracy," he said but explained that it is possible to break out of red-tapism. "I chair a ministerial committee and, every few weeks, I take a machete and hack through the wild vines of bureaucracy." In the bargain, over the past two years he claims Israel has been able to improve its ranking on the Global Competitiveness Index published by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum-jumping up from 27th place to 16th place last year. "On this visit I don't want to tackle all of Indian bureaucracy. I just want to hack a path in the bureaucratic jungle that afflicts both of us to allow Israeli entrepreneurs to come to India, do business with India, for the benefit of the people of India," he added.
On the more contentious issue of India's UN vote against recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Netanyahu didn't hide his disappointment but added that this "visit is a testament that our relationship is moving forward on many fronts". According to him, this is true not only in the political sense or in the realms of technology, security matters and tourism, but also at the level of the individual citizen. "The fact that you can grow your crops better, that you can have cleaner water, cleaner energy, cleaner air... these are things that make a difference in the lives of people. And I think our cooperation advances that and ultimately you will see that reflected in all the UN votes, not just now but soon," he quipped.
Israel and India were able to tide over the Jerusalem issue through diplomatic channels, but a bigger sore point is India cancelling the $500 million Spike anti-tank guided missile deal less than a fortnight ago. "I hope that this visit can help resolve this issue because I think there is a reasonable chance we can reach an equitable solution. But we will have to wait till the end of this visit," said Netanyahu. "But our defence relationship is quite significant and it encompasses many things. The key word is defence, we want to defend ourselves. We are not aggressive nations. But we are very committed to making sure that no one can commit aggression against either one of us."
Speaking about protecting one another, he answered India Today's questions on terror cooperation saying that "intelligence" is the key to fighting terrorism. "Israel has, on the whole, superb intelligence. Nobody is better than our intelligence services I would say, and that is what we share with you," he said, adding that "In the last few years we have stopped some 30 major terrorist attacks by sharing vital intelligence, not vis a vis India alone but dozens of countries." Given that Moshe Holtzberg, who lost his parents in the Mumbai terror attack, has accompanied the Israeli premier to Mumbai, Netanyahu used some tough words against Hafiz Saeed, a key accused in the attacks who currently roams freely in Pakistan. "Ultimately we will catch up with the killers but the objective is also to prevent future killers," he explained.
While he was emphatic that "you fight terrorism by fighting the terrorists", he shied away from sharing an opinion on India's surgical strikes against Pakistan. "I let India makes her own choices. But the doctrine of fighting terrorism is to firstly have intelligence so that you can pre-empt it and secondly, to take action against the killers. Try not to take action against innocent people but that is something that's not always easy to do," he admitted.
He might be "trying be a diplomat" there, but he had no such reservations when it came to talking about Modi. "I respect PM Modi as a great leader. I see in him a kindred spirit because he is impatient to bring the future to his people and to change the world." The hugs on the tarmac yesterday clearly were not just for photo-ops.
He was equally candid in claiming that "The future belongs to those who innovate. Israel is an innovation nation. India has great innovation. In Silicon Valley, I always say, you hear two dialects: You hear Hindi and Hebrew. Sometimes you hear a little English, too. I think this visit will help secure this partnership which is so natural and so promising."
This morning, after inspecting the Guard of Honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Netanyahu had declared that "this is a dawn of a new era in friendship between India and Israel". Let's hope that the delegation level talks that are expected to be held around noon also bear fruit.