Indian Premier, in Israel Visit, Seeks to Break Barriers in Trade and History
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long argued that, far from being diplomatically isolated because of its policies toward the Palestinians, Israel is constantly being courted by countries seeking help in technology, intelligence and counterterrorism.
That narrative was reinforced on Tuesday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India arrived in Israel for a three-day visit, the first by an Indian premier in the 25 years since the two countries established full diplomatic relations.
“We’ve been waiting for you a long time. We’ve been waiting nearly 70 years, in fact,” since the state of Israel was established, Mr. Netanyahu said in his welcoming remarks at the airport.
Israel and India already share extensive defense ties, and India recently agreed to buy about $2 billion dollars’ worth of Israeli missiles and air defense systems, the largest order in Israel’s history, experts said. The two countries are now looking to expand trade and cooperation in areas like agriculture and water management.
India has long embraced the Palestinian cause and kept its distance from Israel to protect its interests in the Arab world. But Mr. Modi seems as eager as Mr. Netanyahu to delink Israel from the Palestinian question and, notably, will not be combining his trip with a courtesy visit to the Palestinian Authority.
Hundreds of guests were invited to greet Mr. Modi at a red-carpet ceremony at the airport. Mr. Netanyahu has described him as “my friend” and both have hailed the visit as “historic.”
Israel, a sliver of a country, has a population of 8.5 million while India is a vast land with a population of 1.3 billion. Despite the apparent mismatch, both have developed as vibrant democracies in adverse conditions and have many joint interests.
“We have the same enemy — radical Islam,” said Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “Like us, they live in a difficult neighborhood,” he added, referring to Pakistan and China.
Professor Inbar said Indian weapons procurements from Israel amounted to more than $1 billion a year, and that the countries make “good partners” in other areas of security and innovation.
“The sky is the limit in this relationship,” he said, with India now an economic power and the strength of the Arab world declining. “We are just scratching the surface.”
For India, the visit is the culmination of a gradual policy pivot.
P.R. Kumaraswamy, a professor of international affairs at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and the author of “India’s Israel Policy,” compared it to a clandestine love affair that has, at last, been brought out into the open.
“You have a relationship, but you are not ready to admit it in public,” Mr. Kumaraswamy said. “If I’m going to have an affair with a woman, I’m not going to make her part of all my decision-making. But if you marry a person, it’s the whole package: Where you want to live, how you see your life 20 years from today.”
India’s position traces back to the last days of the British Raj, when its nationalist leaders saw common cause with the post-colonial Arab world. With independence came a far more practical consideration: The ruling Indian National Congress party was desperate to secure the loyalty of India’s large Muslim minority, which was also being wooed by the Muslim League.
New Delhi did not recognize the Jewish state until 1950, two years after its establishment. The militaries of the two countries steadily built ties starting in the 1980s, as India sought suppliers outside the Soviet bloc, but the two governments did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1992, under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.
“When the Cold War ended, India had to say, ‘I know there is a new world,’ and the most effective way of doing this is establishing relations with Israel,” Mr. Kumaraswamy said. “By changing the relations, he said, ‘I am breaking from the past.’”
For Mr. Modi, this visit serves a similar purpose. Unlike its nemesis, the socialist Congress Party, his Hindu nationalist party has always argued for better relations with Israel. Mr. Kumaraswamy said Mr. Modi hopes his visit will allow India to gain access to both civilian and military technology.
“At a much larger level, by coming out into the open, by visiting Israel and not Palestine, he is going to communicate the message that Israel is part of the Middle East,” he said. “He is normalizing Israel as part of the larger Middle East.”
Mr. Modi met the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in New Delhi in May, and assured him of India’s “unwavering support” for the Palestinian cause and for the “realization of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, coexisting peacefully with Israel.”
Mr. Modi’s first stop, after the airport, was an Israeli floriculture farm that exports cut flowers to more than 60 countries. He was then expected to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.
At a large event on Wednesday for the Indian community in Israel, Mr. Modi was expected to meet Moshe Holtzberg, an Israeli boy who, as a toddler, was spirited out of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish center in Mumbai by his Indian nanny during a deadly terrorist attack in 2008. Moshe’s parents, who operated the center, were killed along with four other hostages. Moshe and his nanny came to live in Israel.
Kabir Taneja, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank, said the meeting was likely to be significant because the siege on the Chabad center “cemented a certain narrative between India and Israel on counterterrorism.”
Shortly before Mr. Modi landed, the Israeli police announced they had thwarted an attack after arresting six Palestinian suspects in a vehicle at a West Bank checkpoint. The police said a bag in the vehicle contained knives, stun grenades and materials for firebombs, and that the suspects had been heading for Jerusalem.