CHENNAI // Indian prime minister Narendra Modi arrived in Israel on Tuesday emphasising co-operation in agriculture and space launch technologies. But in recent years, the relationship between the two countries has increasingly centred on another sector altogether: defence.
India, the world’s biggest arms importer, is the largest buyer of Israel’s defence exports. In the three years leading up to March 2016, Israel became India’s third-largest supplier of weapons, selling arms worth US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) annually. And this year alone, New Delhi has signed deals to buy $3bn worth of anti-tank missiles, air defence systems and medium and long-range surface-to-air missiles, while the Indian air force has also signalled its interest in purchasing two Phalcon airborne surveillance radars from Israel — a deal worth nearly $1.2bn.
Indian officials downplayed these defence ties before Mr Modi landed in Tel Aviv, however, saying no new arms deals would be signed during the prime minister visit.
Meanwhile, a joint opinion article written by Mr Modi and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and published in the Times of India on Tuesday made only a brief reference to security challenges.
“We both recognise the threat terrorism poses to our countries and to global peace and stability,” the leaders wrote. “Accordingly, a few years ago we signed a landmark agreement on co-operation in homeland and public security. India and Israel are committed to working together to fight this scourge.”
Mr Modi’s three-day itinerary in Israel includes a range of non-defence related activities: inspecting farms and desalination plants, addressing a rally of Indians living in the country; visiting a military cemetery and discussing satellite launch capabilities.
But the Indian prime minister’s discussions with Mr Netanyahu will undoubtedly revolve, to a large extent, around trade of defence equipment and security co-operation.
The burgeoning of the India-Israel defence relationship pre-dates Mr Modi’s prime ministership, which began in May 2014, said Pranay Kotasthane, a research fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based think-tank.
"There is bipartisan political consensus in India on a narrowly-defined defence partnership with Israel," he told The National.
"Unlike other defence partners, Israel is willing to share technology and set up joint ventures for defence manufacturing."
Mr Modi has said he intends to spend $250bn to modernise India’s army, prompting weapons exporters across the world to woo the Indian government with their products. In turn, he has courted such exporters to participate in his flagship "Make in India" programme, which aims to stimulate domestic industry by farming out some or all of the manufacture of defence hardware to firms in India.
“Israel’s defence capabilities are complementary to India’s,” said Mr Kotasthane. “Israel has carved a niche for itself in surveillance equipment and ballistic missile defence systems. These are exactly the areas where [India’s] Defence Research and Development Organization has not delivered. So it made sense to procure these items from Israel.”
But Mr Modi’s growing strategic closeness to Israel also risks unsettling Palestinians and Arab states, which have enjoyed warm economic and cultural ties with India for decades.
Notably, Mr Modi will not be visiting the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, a tradition usually observed by political leaders visiting Israel who maintain friendly ties with both Israel and the Arab world.
Pavan Kapoor, the Indian ambassador in Tel Aviv, told The Times of Israel his country wished to pursue parallel and independent relationships with Israel and Palestine.
“It’s our sense of confidence that we can deal with both relationships independently and on their own merits. We don’t see the need to hyphenate them,” Mr Kapoor said on Sunday.
So far, Mr Kotasthane said, India has “been able to maintain a non-adversarial relationship with almost every west Asian nation” partly because it has refused to be seen as taking sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict and other thorny geopolitical issues.
But “as India tries to increase its engagement with Israel, this equilibrium will face initial shocks", he added. “A strong economic growth engine and a pragmatic view in international policy will be key to assuaging the partnerships with other west Asian countries. It has been done before, and I think India’s external affairs ministry has this base covered.”