India and Israel: A Demonstrative Love Affair
India and Israel have a budding relationship based on security and foreign policy concerns.
- Narendra Modi has been rightly termed the most pro-Israel prime minister in Indian history.
- India considers Islamist propaganda in the Internet a major security threat.
- The new India-Israel dynamic is driven by similar perspectives of external threats - and common enemies.
- For the Israelis, the Arab states are the archenemies. For the Indians, Pakistan falls into the same category.
- Security and foreign policy considerations are the main driving force of the Indian-Israeli love affair.
- Modi has proven he can win elections without considering the Muslim minority. Does this make him Israel’s man?
In his nearly one year in office, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has moved very methodically about setting new priorities in foreign affairs. That move surprised many observers who had anticipated that Modi would mostly focus on the domestic economy.
The rapprochement with the United States, celebrated during the recent visit of President Obama in New Delhi, was a highlight, as was the improvement in relations with Sri Lanka.
Buddying up with Israel
Now, India’s new government is executing a demonstrative closing of ranks with Israel. Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, just became the first holder of that office to visit India since the inception of diplomatic relations more than two decades ago.
Both sides spoke of it as a historic event. The significance of the visit fits in neatly with Narendra Modi’s broadbased efforts to readjust India’s foreign policy priorities in an evolving international environment. India is in the market for more defense goods and Israel is an important supplier.
The South Indian metropolis of Bengaluru was the first stop for Ya’alon and his entourage, which consisted of numerous Israeli representatives of companies involved in weapons manufacturing. The visitors attended Aero India, the most important arms show in South Asia –- and a marketplace for gigantic deals.
As was to be expected, the keenest buyers were the hosts themselves. India’s government wants to modernize the country’s armed forces and has earmarked no less than $150 billion for new fighter jets, anti-tank missiles, submarines, helicopters and other hardware.
Israel’s expansive and highly successful arms industry would like to secure a major piece of that cake. Chances for that are good. They have become even better with Narendra Modi in power, rightly termed the most pro-Israel prime minister in Indian history.
The end of Russian dominance
Traditionally, it has been Russia – and before that, the Soviet Union – that served as the biggest supplier of military equipment to the Indians. But the days of Russian domination are coming to an end.
Indian officials complain the Russians are not sharing technological know-how. The Israelis are seen as far more generous when it comes to military technology transfer. India is now the largest buyer of military hardware “Made in Israel.” At the same time, Israel is India’s largest customer after Russia.
Unlike its predecessor, the Modi government has given up any effort to conceal the massive defense cooperation with Israel. “We used to have our defense relationship behind the scene,” but they no longer need to do this, Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s defense minister, said in a talk at a political think tank in New Delhi.
This novel transparency in a highly sensitive policy field goes hand in hand with a broad-based upgrading of bilateral relations.
When Narendra Modi met Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last September, the two agreed to expand their relations. During that meeting, Netanyahu told Modi “the sky is the limit” for their cooperation.
Only a few weeks later, India’s Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, visited Israel to discuss cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other security issues. India is particularly keen to learn about Israel’s cyber-defense systems as it considers Islamist propaganda in the Internet a major security threat.
Delhi is concerned that Islamist groups are out to radicalize members of the 180 million people strong Muslim minority in India or recruit Indian Muslims for “holy war” in the Middle East.
India and Israel have also expanded their cooperation in other fields, such as agriculture and commerce. The two countries have even embarked on negotiations for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement.
However, all this is of secondary importance. The military relationship is clearly the dominant factor. The new India-Israel dynamic is driven by similar perspectives of external threats – and common enemies.
Fighting a common foe
For the Israelis, the Arab predominantly Muslim states are the archenemies with whom they have fought numerous wars. For the Indians, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan falls into the same category of inimical neighbor.
Little wonder, then, that Israel’s Defense Minister went out of his way to stress that his country’s weapon systems fit the Indian requirements.
Security and foreign policy considerations are the main driving force of the Indian-Israeli love affair, which both governments are now demonstratively sharing within the public eye.
Domestic politics also plays a crucial role. “The previous Congress-led government kept ties with Israel quiet, partly over concerns it would antagonize Muslim voters the party relied on for support,” explain NC Bipindra and Nataliee Obiko Pearson in a Bloomberg report.
Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist BJP do not need to take into account such domestic considerations. India’s Muslims have never been — and probably never will be — a strategic target group of their electoral campaigns.
Modi has proven on more than one occasion that he is in the position to win elections without considering the Muslim minority. This is good news for Israel.