FTA to help treble Indo-Israel trade: Minister

Jerusalem: As it negotiates a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India, Israel has exuded confidence that the landmark pact will help treble the bilateral trade which is set to touch USD 6 billion this year.

"Bilateral trade between the two countries has been growing at a steady pace. When we established full diplomatic relations in 1992 it was a mere USD 180 million and current trends indicate that it will be USD 6 billion this year," Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said.

However, as the two countries prepare to sign an FTA the same would get "a big boost and treble in the next 6-7 years", Steinitz told PTI prior to his three-day India visit starting December 13.

The two countries have been working on the signing of a financial protocol following a meeting between Steinitz and his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee in Washington last October.

The Israeli minister, however, is going to sign several other agreements in India that will boost cooperation. "We have some of the most smartest people on both sides.

We are working toward the establishment of a joint fund to promote R&D. During my trip I will also explore ways to bring more doctoral and post-doctoral students from India to Israel and vice versa", he said.

"I want to see more Indian investments in Israel, just as there are investments by Israeli companies in India. There is a special close chemistry between Indians and Israelis."

In a change of trend, some Indian companies have been investing in Israel with Jain Irrigation acquiring majority stakes in NaanDan, Sun Pharma taking controlling stake in Taro Pharmaceuticals, TCS opening an office in Israel and the State Bank of India inaugurating a branch in Ramat Gan`s diamond exchange.

Describing India as the top destination for Israelis in Asia, Steinitz said the growing people-to-people contact during the last two decades has led to a strong cultural bonding between the two countries.

"Beyond trade and politics, there is today a very close affinity between Indians and Israelis. Israelis feel comfortable in India and so do the Indians in our country. I am very excited and looking forward to my first visit. People in my family have visited India several times and so have my friends. I have heard a lot from them about the warmth of the Indian people", he said.

A close confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Steinitz expressed satisfaction at the way the Indo-Israel ties have evolved during the last two decades as both countries plan a series of events to commemorate 20 years of diplomatic relations.

"India and Israel share a very strong strategic bond.

They are both vibrant democracies unfortunately threatened by the menace of terrorism and radical Islamic outfits. We have been cooperating with each other and demonstrated a strong resolve to counter it", the Israeli Finance Minister said.

"The events in Mumbai three years ago when a Jewish centre was also among the sites attacked by terrorists have further strengthened our resolve to fight terror together", he added.

Steinitz is likely to meet several prominent leaders like Mukherjee, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon during his India trip.