Narendra Modi has become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, receiving the red-carpet treatment usually reserved for presidents of superpowers as he arrived to the Jewish state on July 4 for a three-day visit.
“This is an historic first by an Indian PM to Israel in 70 years; it attests to the fact that our relations with India became closer,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on Monday.
Netanyahu’s office stated that he would personally accompany Modi “at many events during his visit, as befits the leader of the largest democracy in the world.”
Their itinerary likely will include a visit to an agricultural project and the Israel Museum, as well as a gathering of Israeli Jews of Indian origin.
Modi will also visit Moshe Holtzberg, the son of the victims of a 2008 terrorist attack on a Jewish center in Mumbai in which six Jews were killed along with victims at other locations.
“It’s my singular honor to be the first ever prime minister of India to undertake this groundbreaking visit to Israel,” Modi said at Ben Gurion Airport upon his arrival. “My visit celebrates the strength of centuries-old links between our societies. The people of Israel have built a nation on democratic principles. They have nurtured it with hard work and the spirit of innovation. India applauds your achievements.”
The context for Modi’s visit is complex. The visit swiftly follows the signing of Israel’s largest defense deal. According to Reuters India is now Israel’s largest defense client, with exports of around $1 billion per year.
The trip will “deepen cooperation in a wide range of fields – security, agriculture, water, energy, basically in almost every field Israel is involved in,” Netanyahu said. It is indeed these areas in which Israeli technology can serve the food security and energy needs of India’s burgeoning population.
India shares Israel’s concerns over terrorism, including Islamic terrorism, and hence has a clear need for Israeli technology for its own security. Even before the two states established full diplomatic ties in 1992, they had cooperated in such matters.
Modi has indeed broken with Indian tradition with a colonial legacy that had been loathe to side with Israel, perceived as a “colonizer.” However, Modi is the first to make India’s relations with Israel public, risking its established diplomatic ties with the Islamic world, including Iran.
“The visit is important because in today’s day and age, we must be clear who our friends are,” Hardeep Puri, India’s former representative to the UN has stated. “Given our orientation of our policy, we need to have better and stronger relations with Israel.”
Modi will not visit the Palestinian Authority as most foreign leaders traditionally do, including U.S. President Donald Trump. Modi supports the establishment of a Palestinian state and hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Delhi as recently as May, pledging development assistance.
Indeed Palestinian Ambassador Adnan Abu Alhaija asserted that India’s embracing of Israel does not damage its relations with the Palestinians, pointing to reciprocal visits and exchange between Palestinian and Indian universities.
“The India-Israel relation is bilateral. It has not affected the Indian relationship to Palestine,” he said.
Director General Amarendra Khatua of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), concurs.
“Always we have had a strong relationship with Palestine,” Khatua said. “Our Israel relationship is tremendous, but that is independent of our relationship with Palestine.”
In addition to cooperating with Israel on strategies to combat internal terrorism, India – concerned with neighboring countries Pakistan and China, both nuclear powers – is looking to diversify its sourcing of weapons so as not to rely solely on the U.S. or Russia. After India carried out nuclear weapons tests in 1998, the U.S. imposed economic and military sanctions prompting India, during its 1999 war with Pakistan, to buy weapons from Israel, weapons which happened to be American-made.
Since then there has been a gradual warming of ties between India and Israel, also evident in India’s voting regarding Israel at the United Nations. In 2015 India abstained in a United Nations Human Rights Council call to investigate Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Prior to that India had tended to vote against Israel.
With the election of Modi, relations between India and Israel have truly warmed.