The Indo-Israeli defense relationship is once again in focus following Benjamin Netanyahu’s “sky is the limit” comment after meeting Narendra Modi in New York back in September—and especially after the signing of the long-delayed $144 million deal on Barak I missiles in October. Another milestone was crossed in November when New Delhi and Tel Aviv successfully tested the Barak 8 anti-missile system—a joint project developing an aerial defense system for naval vessels. Moreover, since Modi took power this summer, New Delhi has purchased a whopping $662 million worth of Israeli arms.
So is the Indo-Israeli strategic relationship likely to be fundamentally different now that Modi is in power? Although Indo-Israeli ties are undoubtedly on the upswing, history suggests that Modi is not likely to have a fundamental impact on the substance of the bilateral relationship.
During the early part of the Cold War, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru briefly considered inviting Israel to the 1955 Bandung Conference, but eventually decided against doing so in order to appease Arab and Middle Eastern states. While this carved out India’s Cold War foreign policy of opposing Israel and siding with Palestine, New Delhi’s military ties with Tel Aviv, however modest, began by the 1960s. Not only did Israel provide military assistance to India in its wars in 1962, 1965 and 1971, but Tel Aviv was also one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh following India’s victory in its 1971 war against Pakistan. When the traditionally pro-Israel and Hindu, right-wing, Jan Sangh-led government was briefly in power from 1977 to 1979, Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan paid a secret visit to New Delhi in August 1977 to further expand bilateral ties.
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Jayita Sarkar is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.