Twenty-five years after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, India is openly embracing its growing ties with Tel Aviv as Narendra Modi becomes the first Indian prime minister to travel there on Tuesday.
New Delhi, traditionally a supporter of the Palestinian cause, has quietly fostered growing ties with Israel, but avoided high profile visits.
India’s Hindu nationalist leader will set aside that caution and hesitation as he holds official talks with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
Relationship out in the open
“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 the India Muslim sentiment at home,” says strategic affairs expert, Bharat Karnad at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
In comments to the Indian Express newspaper, India’s ambassador to Israel, Pavan Kapoor, called it the “formal coming out of the relationship.”
It is not a coincidence that this is happening under Modi — he has been a long admirer of Israel’s military and technical expertise.
A thriving defense partnership lies at the core of the upswing in bilateral ties. Israel has emerged as 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.
Israel is also an important source of agriculture and water technology, and plans are afoot for Israel to help India boost food security by expanding 26 agriculture centers in 15 states.
Expanded defense ties
Bala Bhaskar, in charge of West Asia in India’s Foreign Ministry said the visit will focus on expanding defense, technological and commercial ties.
Citing a range of areas from homeland and cyber security to agriculture for collaboration, he said, “it is a very wide ranging partnership, and we want to bring a definite shape and advance this cooperation in several areas.”
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 boost for Modi’s campaign to develop a domestic defense industry.
Israel has quietly supported India’s military needs for decades — it gave India arms in 1971 during a war with Pakistan and later in 1999 during another conflict with Pakistan.
The strengthening of ties with Israel, besides the United States and Japan, seal a shift in India’s foreign policy under Modi.
Karnad says the visit “is a formalization of the fact that Israel has emerged as the Western anchor just as Japan is on the other side. This is the larger geopolitical design.”
Many in India believe the growing ties are natural between two countries who feel they face a threat from their Muslim-majority neighbors.
The Indian Prime Minister will not travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders during the visit. Although ties with Palestine remain robust and New Delhi hosted President Mahmoud Abbas in May, analysts say India wants to delink the two relationships.
The visit comes 70 years after India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru declined to support the creation of Israel. For years, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was a regular visitor to New Delhi, which was seen as a champion of non-alignment.