India and Israel are expected to set up strategic partnerships on agriculture and water technology during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's groundbreaking visit to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this week, senior Israeli officials said Monday.
Modi, whose visit will begin Tuesday in Tel Aviv, is the first Indian government leader to visit Israel, although the two countries have had friendly diplomatic relations for 25 years.
A senior Israeli official and former ambassador to India, Mark Sofer, said in Jerusalem that Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will discuss a plan to boost India's food security. Israel is expected to expand agriculture expertise centers that it already operates in 15 Indian states to help boost output of vegetable and fruit crops, including mangoes and pomegranates.
Israel also is an important source of water technology for India, Sofer said, adding: "Other issues that we will be dealing with through the visit are innovation [and] space cooperation. The Indian government will be opening up a cultural center in Israel and we will be setting up a very important CEO [chief executive officers'] forum of top echelons of the business communities of India and Israel."
No visit to West Bank on agenda
New Delhi, traditionally a supporter of the Palestinian cause, has quietly fostered growing ties with Israel, but avoided high-profile visits to the Jewish state until now. Modi, a Hindu nationalist who has forged new ground in many aspects of India's foreign relations, has displayed none of the hesitation and caution that marked New Delhi's ties to Israel years ago.
Modi will not travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders during his three-day visit. Despite that, analysts said India's ties with the Palestinian Authority remains robust, and were plain to see during Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' visit to India in May.
Following his Israeli visit, Modi will head to Hamburg, Germany, for the Group of 20 meeting later this week that will bring together the leaders of nations that have about two-thirds of the entire world's population.
The Indian prime minister has long been an admirer of Israel's military and technical expertise, and a thriving defense partnership lies at the core of the upswing in bilateral ties. Israel has become India's third-largest arms supplier, behind Russia and the United States, as New Delhi spends billions of dollars on a modernization program for its armed forces.
Behind-the-scenes talks on military sales
For Israel, India is its biggest export market for military supplies and weapons, up to $1 billion a year on average. Israel's Sofer refused to discuss that sector during his meeting with reporters in Jerusalem on Monday: "We have no intention whatsoever, like any other country in the world, of discussing our defense partnership or relationship with any country, including the one that we are talking about now."
At the Indian Foreign Ministry, Bala Bhaskar, in charge of West Asian affairs, said the two prime ministers will focus on expanding defense, technological and commercial ties. "It is a very wide-ranging partnership," he said, "and we want to bring a definite shape and advance this cooperation in several areas."
"The Modi government is a lot less constrained by the previous political thinking about not upsetting the Arabs or visibly giving up on the Palestinian cause — or, for that matter, courting Indian Muslims' sentiment at home," said Bharat Karnad, an analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Israel has quietly supported India's military needs for decades: It sent arms to India during the war with Pakistan in 1971, and repeated that support during another conflict with Pakistan in 1999.
Two months ago, Israel Aerospace Industries sealed a $2 billion deal to supply India with air and missile defense systems to be fitted on warships. The systems are to be built jointly by the two countries, and the project is seen as a boost for Modi's campaign to develop a domestic defense industry.
Pomp and splendor for Indian visitor
The Israeli government is preparing to receive Modi with the kind of ceremonial welcome normally reserved for visiting U.S. presidents. The Jerusalem Post reported the Indian prime minister will stay in the same luxury suite at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that was prepared for President Donald Trump's recent trip to Israel.
Modi also will address a rally of Israelis whose origins lie in India on Wednesday night at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds. The Indian embassy, which is organizing the event and has chartered buses to bring in attendees from all parts of the Jewish state, expects 4,000 or more people to take part.
Such rallies are a hallmark of Modi's foreign travels and his enthusiasm for people-to-people contacts. India's ambassador to Israel, Pavan Kapoor, said the prime minister sees Indians abroad as bridges between the countries where they are living and the country of their birth.
The Jerusalem Post recounted the story Monday of Noah Massil, a writer and poet in Jerusalem who immigrated to Israel from Bombay in 1970.
Massil said he will happily attend Modi's rally for several reasons. "First of all, India is the only country in the world where there was never anti-Semitism," he told the newspaper. Jews lived in India "for 2,300 years and they treated us as equals," he added. "We lived there in peace."
Massil said he wants to identify with India, "to show that we, the descendants of India, have not forgotten" the fair treatment they received.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct an erroneous reference to the Palestinian Authority as "Palestine."
VOA's Anjana Pasricha in New Delhi contributed to this report.