Narendra Modi is set to become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel when he arrives on Tuesday, the result of growing ties that have led to billions of dollars in defense deals.
Israel, in constant search of allies to vote in its favor at UN bodies as well as business partners, has been portraying the visit as historic.
In an interview published with pro-government daily Israel Hayom Monday, Modi said the visit was “based on the deep centuries-old connection between our two peoples.”
“I share the opinion of many of my people, who see Israel as a beacon of technology, as a country that has managed to survive even though the odds were against it.”
The visit is expected to focus on forging new defense and cyber security ties, two areas in which Israel has sought to portrays itself as a world leader.
Modi added that his government is determined to improve relations between India and Israel and raise them to new levels. “Our goal is to conduct dialogue with Israel in a manner that improves the lives of the citizens of both countries,” he said.
Israeli analysts have noted Modi will apparently not travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders during his three-day stay, as is common for many foreign dignitaries.
Modi did, however, meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May.
The Indian prime minister last visited Israel a decade ago, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, and came with a delegation to learn about Israeli agriculture.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the visit, which marks 25 years since the two countries established diplomatic relations, a “further expression of the state of Israel’s military, economic and diplomatic strength.”
“This is a very significant step in strengthening relations between the two countries,” said the Israeli leader, who is expected to accompany Modi for much of the visit. “India is a huge country with over 1.25 billion people and is one of the world’s largest, growing economies. Ties between Israel and India are on a constant upswing.”
But while Israel, with a population of some eight million, has held the visit up as a diplomatic victory, both countries have practical reasons for the trip.
India is the world’s biggest importer of defense equipment, and Israel has become one of its major suppliers.
Israeli media have reported that the two countries see more than $1 billion in defense deals each year.
India has been investing tens of billions in updating its Soviet-era military hardware to counter longstanding tensions with regional rivals China and Pakistan.
It has signed several big-ticket defense deals since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party stormed to power in 2014.
In April, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries said India would buy nearly $2 billion worth of weapons technology, making it the military exporting giant’s largest ever defense contract.
The deal will see IAI provide India with an advanced defense system of medium-range surface-to-air missiles, launchers and communications technology.
It later announced a deal worth $630 million to provide India’s navy with missile defense systems.
The two countries have also cooperated on issues such as water and agriculture technology.
‘More than defense’
“I think it’s more than defense contracts,” Efraim Inbar, a former head of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies thinktank, told AFP.
“It is a common strategic agenda which includes a fear of Islamic radicalism, fears about Chinese assertiveness and in addition, of course, you cannot ignore the huge economic potential for both countries.”
Inbar added: “But for us it’s a huge market.”
India has traditionally voiced its support for Palestinian statehood, initially shunning diplomatic relations with Israel.
But the frost has thawed in recent years, with India seeking closer defense ties with Israel, particularly as New Delhi turns increasingly away from traditional ally Russia for its military hardware.
Hindu nationalist Modi makes the trip after his visit last week to Washington, where he and US President Donald Trump embraced each other as friends, vowing to work more closely on combating terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and defense cooperation.
While ties with some US allies have been strained by Trump’s complaints that Washington has been the loser in trade agreements, Modi appeared sensitive to his host’s emphasis on transactional diplomacy.
Modi may find similar common ground with Netanyahu, Israel’s longtime right-wing prime minister who hosted Trump in May.
India is currently the world’s fastest growing major economy, a status that Modi is hoping to cement by drawing in more foreign investment.
He has sought to do that in part by encouraging manufacturers to do business in Asia’s third-largest economy.
Israel’s defense deals have included components that will be assembled in India.