Israel’s Pivot to Asia

Israel’s Pivot to Asia

By Bob Bahr

Attendees at this month’s American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington were primed to hear another gloomy assessment of Israel’s standing in Europe and the chilly relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What many were not prepared for was the news of the warm, rapidly developing relationship between Israel and the leading nations of Asia, particularly India and China.

Attendees at the Global Forum heard a frank and upbeat off-the-record assessment of Asia’s future by a leading Israeli foreign trade specialist and an analysis of the warm relationship between Israeli leaders and India’s recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. discussed China’s foreign policy and quoted a top Israeli diplomat as saying Israel’s relationship with China is among its top four diplomatic relationships.

The Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia has been more than matched by Israel’s own economic and diplomatic offensive in the East.

Ambassador Mark Sofer, the deputy director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the head of the Asia-Pacific division, said, “One would be hard pressed to find a country in Asia, other than the Muslim nations and North Korea, where Israel doesn’t have an excellent relationship.”

China, for example, has become the largest foreign investor in Israel’s economy. Technology draws heavy investment, but everything’s up for grabs.

Few shoppers realize that when they shop at Costco in Dunwoody for imported Tnuva cheese, they are buying a product from an Israeli dairy company controlled by Chinese investors.

China is second only to the European Union among Israel’s trading partners. In a little over 20 years, Israeli annual exports to China have skyrocketed from $50 million to $10 billion. New direct flights between China and Israel are targeted to bring 100,000 Chinese tourists to Israel in the next two years.

The cooperation includes Tel Aviv University and Tsingua University’s $300 million joint research center, a $130 million donation to the Technion, and a program at Peking University that teaches how Israelis do business.

If anything, things are looking even brighter for Israel in India. Modi is considered one of the world’s friendliest leaders toward Israel.

“We have in India now the most instinctively pro-Israel prime minister in the country’s history, and that opens up great opportunities,” Sofer said.

Previously, as the head of the wealthy and heavily industrialized Indian province of Gujarat, Modi encouraged billions of dollars in Israeli investments in everything from thermal and solar power to pharmaceuticals and water desalinization. Two Indian semiconductor plants being built for $10.4 billion have an Israeli company as an investment partner.

While Israel has had full diplomatic relations with India since 1992, it was only in 1999 that a defense relationship began. Today, with $1 billion in purchases, India is the largest customer for Israeli defense hardware. Israel and India are developing a joint air defense system, and India in October chose an Israeli anti-tank weapon over a similar U.S. system.

Sofer told the AJC forum: “What we have is this unique opportunity to take this transition from coach class to business class and hopefully to bump it up to first class.”

What makes all this possible is a cultural context that invites Israeli participation. Each year thousands of young Israelis, fresh from military service, spend months traveling in Delhi, Goa and the Himalayas in a welcoming India.

“Anti-Semitism is an unknown word in the Indian psyche,” Sofer said, “and there are shared values between a majority of educated Indians and Jews: the importance of family and of education.”

In this rapidly developing relationship, the United States, both as a government and as a source of capital, has played an important role.

“In Pakistan,” said Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, who also spoke at the Global Forum, “the relationship between the U.S., Israel and India is slyly referred to as ‘the American Kosher Delhi,’ where you have the growing links between Silicon Valley, Israel and Bangalore, the technological capital of India. In many ways, whether it is technology or counterterrorism, this is a triangular relationship.”

These ties have been helped along by nongovernmental organizations such as the AJC, whose Asia Pacific Institute has worked for a decade to cultivate contacts among India, Indian-Americans, American Jews and Israel.

There is great hope for the future. Last month India announced that Modi will soon visit Israel, the first Indian prime minister to do so.

“With Mr. Modi and his party, particularly, there is a much greater comfort with this relationship being completely out in the open. It is less a love affair and more of a marriage,” Sofer said.

Israel, a tiny nation reborn in 1948 of an ancient people, thus is reaching across a thousand miles of hostility in the Middle East to embrace the representatives of the two most populous nations, reborn in 1948 and 1949 of equally ancient peoples.

But this unpredictable arc of understanding is more about economics and national necessity than history.

As Ehad Cohen, the director general of the Foreign Trade Administration at the Israeli Ministry of Economy, said: “Israel has no choice but to pursue partnerships and investments in these markets. By 2030, 40 percent of the world’s economic output will come from China and India.”


Bob Bahr will teach an Emory University continuing education course on “The American Idol — Faith and Fame in the 20th Century,” beginning July 7, at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church and Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs. The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and Interfaith Community Initiatives are co-sponsors.

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