Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is openly boosting ties with Israel, strengthening a relationship that has largely grown outside of the public spotlight over the past two decades.
India last month decided to buy Israeli anti-tank guided missiles and launchers, shunning a rival U.S. offer, and is reviving joint development of a long-range missile. The moves came soon after Modi held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first meeting between Indian and Israeli leaders in a decade.
Modi’s public overtures to Israel since his Hindu-dominated Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide election in May are bolstering a defense relationship as both countries face threats from Islamic terrorists. The previous Congress-led government kept ties with Israel quiet, partly over concerns it’d antagonize Muslim voters the party relied on for support.
“The relationship is coming out of the closet,” said Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “This is unquestionably the most pro-Israel government in India’s history. It’s one of the many signals of a more assertive India and one that takes terrorism very seriously.”
India, the world’s largest weapons buyer, has bought 41 billion rupees ($662 million) of Israeli arms since Modi took power six months ago. That’s more than the total value of Israel’s defense exports to India in the prior three years.
In September, India made an 8.8-billion-rupee purchase of 262 Barak-I air defense missiles for warships, a deal that had been delayed for six years. A month later, it approved a 32-billion-rupee deal to buy 8,356 Spike anti-tank guided missiles and 321 launchers built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. They beat out a U.S. offer to supply Javelin missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Co.
Modi’s government is also reviving a five-year-old effort to jointly develop a long-range surface-to-air missile called the Barak-II NG. It was successfully tested in Israel, according to an Indian Defense Ministry statement on Nov. 10.
All this may just be the start. India plans to spend $150 billion to modernize its military by 2027, and Israel may be well positioned to gain. For starters, the military needs about 16,000 more anti-tank missiles, according to the Indian army.
“We think the sky is the limit,” Netanyahu told Modi when they met in September in New York. “We’re very excited by the prospects of greater and greater ties.”
While the U.S., Russia and European nations are likely to remain India’s top suppliers of ships or aircraft, Israel’s missile systems, surveillance, and ordnance systems are designed for the kind of threats posed by hostile neighbors and terrorists, according to Jon Grevatt, Asia-Pacific defense industry analyst for IHS Jane’s.
“Israeli capabilities -- this is important -- fit in with the military requirements of the Indian armed forces,” Grevatt said. “The threats they face are similar.”
Modi called for an international strategy to defeat terrorism while addressing Australia’s parliament this week, several months after accusing neighboring Pakistan of resorting to terrorism because it can’t win a conventional war. The countries have fought two of their three wars since 1947 over the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, which is divided between them and claimed in full by both.
The planned U.S. exit from Afghanistan makes it more likely that Pakistan-based fighters who had targeted American troops will turn their weapons on India. In September, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said the terrorist organization plans to conduct operations in India headed by two Pakistani militants.
Modi visited Israel in 2006 as chief minister of Gujarat, when he was ostracized by the U.S. and European countries over his response to 2002 riots in his state that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Other members of Modi’s BJP are also close with Israel. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s first trip abroad was to Tel Aviv this month to discuss defense and security ties. Sushma Swaraj, Modi’s foreign minister, previously headed the equivalent of the Israel caucus in India’s parliament.
Modi is aiming to build up the local manufacturing base with a “Make in India” campaign, which includes modernizing the nation’s armed forces. Netanyahu told Singh this month that Israeli manufacturers, including the defense industry, could produce in India to reduce costs.
The selection of the Israeli Spike anti-tank missile over the U.S. Javelin “will not negatively impact our relationship with India or other possible military sales” to the country, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, said in an e-mail.
The Spike “had been the original frontrunner” for India’s requirements and the decision “had been put on hold pending their review of our Javelin proposal. The Spike has already met their technical and field trial requirements, Javelin had not,” Kendall said.
The U.S. Javelin proposal “is still on the table” to meet India’s remaining requirements, he said.
Israel was the fourth-largest supplier of defense equipment to India in the three years to March, behind the U.S., Russia and France, according to figures submitted to parliament in August.
Until 1992, when relations between India and Israel were normalized, citizens couldn’t travel between the countries. India’s pro-Palestine stance started to shift in 1999, when Israel provided crucial weapons at short notice to India that allowed it to defeat Pakistan during a conflict in Kashmir.
Ariel Sharon was the only Israeli prime minister to visit India in 2003, the last time a BJP-led government held power. Since then, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has visited India four times, including two state visits, according to India’s foreign ministry.
While India’s foreign ministry says its friendship with Palestine is “an integral part of our time-tested foreign policy,” signs of a shift toward Israel were seen shortly after Modi’s BJP became the first party in 30 years to win a majority in India’s parliament. Swaraj, the foreign minister, in July rejected a request by opposition lawmakers for a resolution condemning Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
Israel’s relationship with India “is very important to us, and we are placing a major investment in nurturing and growing that relationship,” said Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry in Jerusalem. “We’ve had an incredibly positive engagement” with the Modi administration, he said.
“Modi has a mandate,” said Harsh V. Pant, a scholar of international relations at King’s College London. “He can confidently take this relationship forward rather than be bogged down by the ideological affiliations of the past.”