External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj confirmed what many observers have anticipated for long: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impending visit to Israel. Nearly quarter of a century after a Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao normalised relations in January 1992, Israel has always hogged public limelight in India and the announcement raises it to new levels.

Some basic facts. Even before the final Lok Sabha results were out, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to call Prime Minister-elect Modi and offer to work with him. Most Arab leaders, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, were busy elsewhere or failed to recognise a regime change in Delhi. Since assuming office, Modi has met only two Middle Eastern leaders: Israel’s Prime Minister in September during the annual UN General Assembly session in September, and the then Crown Prince and now King Salman of Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of G-20 meeting in Brisbane in November.

Diplomatic priorities

The Indo-Israeli relations lacked high-level political engagements but this did not impede growth of the relationship. The exceptions were the visits of President Ezer Weizman in December-January 1997 and of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003. India has been reluctant to organise reciprocal visits and Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s January 2012 visit took place a decade after Jaswant Singh’s. Some planned exchanges by defence ministers did not materialise and Moshe Ya’alon broke this jinx when he came for the Aero Show in February this year.

Countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are equally important for India. None of them are trouble-free – some have problems with themselves or their immediate neighbours and others suffer from identity crisis. Unaccompanied by technological innovations and knowledge, such rentier economies are a liability to themselves and to others. Hence, despite being its largest trading bloc, the Persian Gulf region has been marginal in India’s politico-diplomatic engagements. Once the nuclear controversy is resolved to the satisfaction of key regional players, Iran would re-emerge as an important partner but until such time Modi would be satisfied with ministerial visits.

Domestic criticism

At the same time, Modi cannot ignore domestic criticisms over Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Some might attribute, as they did during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, growing Indian proximity with Israel to Hindutva-Likud ideological convergence. Modi is not enamoured by Third World solidarity of the bygone era and he is equally weary of right-wing foreign policy agenda. Hence, with his domestic critics in mind his government will continue to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause. Since the end of the Cold War, a pro-Palestinian policy has brought diminishing returns for many countries including India. Modi also would be aware of the internal schism that haunts the Palestinians: President Abbas travels world over but for since taking office in 2005 he was unable to set foot on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the other part of Palestine.

Diversified priorities

Aware of the political challenges, in recent years Israel has diversified its priorities in India and moved away from the metropolis to rural India. Indeed, most of bilateral engagements and interactions are economic and are taking place not in Lutyen’s Delhi but in various state capitals, including those run by Congress and other non-National Democratic Alliance parties.

Preoccupied with the peace process, many have ignored the gorilla in the room: "strategic partnership". Conventionally this denotes close ideological proximity, political convergence and more importantly military-security cooperation. The Indo-Israeli relations are strategic because of their willingness to focus on mundane day-to-day issues of development. Describing cooperation in fields like agriculture, floriculture, horticulture, farming techniques, recycling, water management, dairy, rural health or sanitation as "strategic" would be laughable in any other context but for the Indo-Israeli ties. These are the areas where the real transformation is taking place.

A number of ongoing Israeli projects in the country are in line with Modi’s skill development agenda. Without appearing to be patronising or condescending, Israel was quick to embrace his economic model. Hence, Modi will be primarily looking at technological support and cooperation in areas such as waste recycling, clean Ganga mission, primary health care, rescue operations, desalination, infrastructure management and medicine. These can be realised through joint investments in both directions.

The era of free lunches is over and the ability to contribute to his Make in India campaign, the economic agenda, and the infrastructural and environmental issues are his foreign policy priorities. Countries will have to court, negotiate and reciprocate Modi’s support and understanding. Seen in this context, Israel has considerable edge over the rest of the Middle East.

Professor PR Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University and tweets @kumraswamyJNU.