TEL AVIV — Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's February visit to India has been hailed here as an indication of Indo-Israeli relations "coming out of the closet," but in actuality, in the past 15 years ties between the two countries have reached new heights.
"The sky is the limit," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "India is huge. The standard of living of many millions of people is increasing, which makes India a wonderful market in many areas."
While Ya'alon's visit — where he met with Prime Minister Modi Feb. 19 in New Delhi and attended the Aero India show in Bangalore — is the first time an
Israeli defense minister has traveled to India in an official
capacity, it is certainly not the first high-level meeting between the sides. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Modi in New York at last fall's UN General Assembly, former President Ezer Weizman went to New Delhi in 1996, and the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited in 2003.
"Nobody in the world was willing to accept Ariel Sharon [at the time] and the Indians did," Inbar pointed out.
"[Ya'alon's] visit itself is the message," Herb Keinon, The Jerusalem Post's diplomatic correspondent, said. "The willingness on India's part to have such a warm reception for Israel shows they are willing to open the doors to us."
While officials are reticent to speak about the specifics of the deals inked between the two countries, they do acknowledge the value of arms deals (an estimated $10 billion thus far) is only expected to grow. Israel is, in fact, India's third largest defense supplier after Russia and the US.
"Israel has a significant security partnership with India and we share a joint effort in fighting terrorism, and fostering security dialogue between the ministries of defense and the armed forces," Israeli MoD Director-General Dan Harel said while in Bangalore.
The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, which targeted 12 locations including a Jewish Chabad center, propelled the two countries to work more closely together on counter-terror measures.
"Counter-terrorism is something that I — and Israel — believes all like-minded countries need to work together on. At the end of the day, the extremism felt on all parts of Islamism is something that affects India, Israel and the entire civilized world," Mark Sofer, former Israeli ambassador to India and current deputy director-general and head of the Asia Pacific Division at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Defense News. "All like-minded countries need to put their heads together and find ways of dealing with this, we can't tackle this on our own. None of us can."
Israel and India are expected to cooperate more on the diplomatic front as well. Modi's conservative Bharatiya Janta Party shares an ideology similar to Netanyahu's Likud party with regard to its aggressive policy on combating Islamist extremism.
That commonality can potentially play a key role in the United Nations, where Israel hopes India will be an ally on security matters and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Inbar said.
At the risk of alienating its allies in the Arab world, India has needed to maintain a delicate balancing act in its relations with Israel.
"Let us not forget that India has strived to achieve this balance since the establishment of relations with Israel in 1992, but heretofore there has always been a certain abnormality in the outward appearance of the bilateral relationship in certain fields," Sofer said.