WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama’s trip to India last week highlighted India’s growing importance to the United States. Similarly, cooperation between India and Israel is expanding, as the importance of each country to the other increases.
India, Israel and the U.S. have much in common. They are three major democracies on three continents and are allies to one another. They share the same values of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to vote, strong judicial oversight, women’s rights and more. All three are waging battles against extremist fundamentalists who have launched terrorist attacks against them.
India is the world’s largest democracy, with a population of 1.2 billion, and a growing global economic power. It can have an enormous influence on Israel’s strategic position in the world militarily, diplomatically and economically. India has a real and active interest in the Middle East because of its massive reliance on oil from Iran and other Arab countries that have sustained its economic growth while, to a frightening degree, given money to mullahs who want to destroy Western values and Israel.
Yet in recent years, India and Israel have joined together in counterterrorism efforts and have increased trade and economic ties significantly.
Jews have lived in India for more than 2,000 years and have not been the victims of discrimination — a phenomenon almost unknown throughout history. Israel today is home to some 60,000 members of the Bnei Menashe community, the largest group of Indian Jews, believed by some to be descendants of one of the biblical 10 lost tribes.
The November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, to which President Obama paid respects, is called India’s 9/11. Ten terrorists killed more than 170 people and wounded more than 300 — Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Targeting Indians as well as Westerners, the gunmen attacked two hotels, a train station, a cafe and the city’s Chabad center, where they murdered six people, including four Israelis.
As democracies surrounded mostly by authoritarian, antagonistic neighbors, India and Israel have improved cooperation in areas of mutual interest and concern:
* Following the Mumbai massacre, India and Israel have cooperated in large-scale counterterrorism efforts. As terrorism has been responsible for more deaths in India than in any other country besides Iraq, this shared experience and India’s understanding of Israel’s situation makes the two countries natural political allies. India and Israel have stepped up security and military coordination since the massacre, but even before, starting in 1999, India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Israel’s Foreign Ministry held annual bilateral consultations in Jerusalem and New Delhi, plus periodic discussions on counterterrorism.
* Israel-India trade has grown dramatically (including high-tech, chemical and agricultural products and medical equipment), from $80 million in 1991 to $4 billion in 2008. India and Israel signed five significant trade and economic agreements from 1993 to 1996. Negotiations on a free-trade agreement between the two countries began earlier this year when Israeli President Shimon Peres met with India’s commerce minister. Israeli Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer also pushed for a free-trade agreement during an official visit to India in January. Such a treaty could have a huge influence on Israel’s economy and security.
* As a leader in alternative energy, Israel has a growing relationship with India on water management and other green initiatives, particularly agricultural. This relationship is crucial in deepening bilateral ties as India struggles with the demands of a burgeoning population. For example, the Tel Aviv-based company Netafim, which provides irrigation solutions for agriculture and landscaping, put 14,826 acres of land in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, known as the “Rice Bowl of India,” under sprinkler and drip irrigation.
* The field of Information Technology illustrates the close economic connections among Israel, India and the United States. In the past two decades, companies in Israel and California’s Silicon Valley developed close ties as Israel provided outstanding and affordable engineering labor and research and development centers for major American technology companies. As Israel’s high-tech industry matured and business costs in the country have risen, many Israeli high-tech firms are outsourcing part or all of their development to India, much like U.S. companies. IT professionals from America, Israel and India are collaborating on projects and solutions to improve the world.
Thus, like the United States, India is a natural ally for Israel. Although the U.S. remains the world’s superpower, the global balance of power is shifting east, with ascendant economic heavyweights such as India and China gaining increasing power. Israel must develop new political allies and strong economic partners with countries that hold political and economic power, particularly those that share its interests and concerns. India meets all these criteria.
(Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of The Israel Project, a nonprofit educational organization that provides factual information about Israel and the Middle East to media, leaders and the public. It has offices in Washington and Jerusalem.)