Israel Trip Signals Modi's Shifting Foreign Policy CalculusBy , , and
Visit will be the first by a serving Indian prime minister
Armed drones likely on the agenda as Modi skips Ramallah
Looking for new agriculture technology as well as high-tech weapons to fuel his military modernization program, Narendra Modi is making a landmark trip to Israel, the first by a sitting Indian prime minister.
The visit, which began Tuesday, is likely to focus on security and economic ties with Israel, which is becoming a significant defense partner as India seeks advanced weaponry after relying on the Soviet Union and Russia for most of its military technology.
India has traditionally downplayed relations with Israel fearing it would alienate the country’s 170 million Muslims. But Modi, a popular Hindu nationalist leader facing weak political opposition at home, is embarking on the trip to Israel with little concern for domestic fallout -- and is skipping a similar visit to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
"The major significance of Modi’s visit is precisely that it would be the first visit by a serving Indian Prime Minister to Israel," said Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings India think-tank. "We can expect a continuing of cooperation between India and Israel, not just on defense, but homeland security, pharmaceuticals, information technology, agriculture, and tourism."
Modi landed at 4 p.m. local time and spoke a few words of heavily accented Hebrew in a brief ceremony on the airport tarmac with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader will accompany Modi at almost every stop on his 49-hour visit, a reflection of the importance Israel ascribes to the visit, Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem told reporters Monday.
From the airport Modi was whisked to a flower nursery to see Israeli horticultural techniques, then to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, a near-obligatory stop for foreign dignitaries visiting Israel. He dined with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday night and was to meet Israelis of Indian ancestry Wednesday.
While the official agenda includes little that’s directly related to the military, the countries’ burgeoning defense ties underpin the visit: India is one of the world’s largest arms importers and has emerged as Israel’s biggest defense buyer. The South Asian country is saddled with state-owned firms and a slow, bureaucratic military procurement process, even as it faces serious regional and internal security threats.
Since April, India has inked three missile deals with Israel worth $2.6 billion, two senior defense officials said, declining to be identified as they are not approved to speak about the deals.
India’s Air Force is now awaiting clearance to buy two Phalcon airborne surveillance radars from Israel at a cost of $1.16 billion, while the army is waiting for approval to buy 8,356 Spike anti-tank guided missiles from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, along with 321 launchers, for nearly $500 million, the two officials said.
Modi will be seeking advanced missiles and drones, says Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI.
Armed drones would provide India with new military capabilities battling militants along the so-called Line of Control that divides Indian- and Pakistan-controlled parts of the disputed region of Kashmir, he said, noting that the deal has dragged on for years and may not be concluded on this trip.
"Defense is a major factor pulling India and Israel together, not only because India needs arms, but also because it wants the technology inside them," Joshi said. "India is especially interested in Israeli missiles, drones and the sub-systems that go inside larger platforms."
In Israel, the focus ahead of Modi’s visit has been the possibility of deepening cooperation in areas such as cybersecurity, telecommunications and hi-tech. It is hoping stronger commercial ties will lead India to vote in Israel’s favor at the United Nations and in other international forums, where the Asian giant traditionally has supported the Palestinians.
Trade between the countries has grown from about $200 million in 1992, when they established diplomatic ties, to nearly $4.2 billion last year, according to Israel’s Economy Ministry figures. Alongside Modi’s visit, the two sides are due to set up a CEO’s Forum that will seek out opportunities for cooperation and investment.
In late June, the Israeli cabinet approved a 280 million shekel ($80 million) budget to facilitate cooperation with India in a variety of areas, including water and agricultural technology. Netanyahu’s government also is trying to draw Bollywood producers to film in Israel, and to encourage tourism from India.
"India is a central and important destination for the development of Israeli exports," Economy Minister Eli Cohen said in a June 28 statement. "Tighter diplomatic ties with India and the historic visit of an Indian prime minister to Israel will lead, beyond defense exports, to growth in trade of goods and services."
Notably, Modi will not be making a visit to the unofficial Palestinian capital of Ramallah.
India’s relationships with Israel and the Palestinian Authority are separate, and a visit to one does not necessitate a visit to the other, said an Indian foreign ministry official, who declined to be named.
Abbas visited India in May, when Modi told him: "India has been unwavering in its support of the Palestinian cause. And we hope to see the realization of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel."