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Israel and India, a Match Made in the U.S., Develop Their Own Military Romance

How last month’s attacks in Nairobi, a reminder of the Mumbai siege, may bring them even closer together

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Indian Air Force Chief F.H. Major (left) and Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony (center) inspect the Airborne Warning and Control System airplane at an Air Force station in New Delhi on May 28, 2009. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)
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In February, 2009, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Israeli arms manufacturer, made a short advertisement for the Indian market. It began with three bejeweled Bollywood-style dancers shimmying with a long-nosed man wearing a leather jacket, who pivoted around a model missile and sang in an Israeli accent. “What more can I pledge to make our future strong?” he pleaded. “I need to feel safe and sheltered,” his female counterpart sang back. “Together forever, we will always be.” The entourage then breaks into nonsensical Hindi: “Dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga dee.”

Wired declared it “the most atrocious defense video of all time.” It has little competition. But the 3-minute clip is noteworthy for how uncharacteristic it is of relationship between Israel and India—a defense partnership built not on spectacle but on muted deals and secrecy. The ad, in fact, was something of a thank-you to the Indian defense ministry, which in December 2008 had quietly inked a billion dollar deal for 18 Spyder missiles from Rafael, a private company spun off from the research and development division of the Israel Defense Forces in 2002. It has since signed a partnership to build weapons with Mahindra & Mahindra, one of India’s largest conglomerates.

Last year, Israel topped the list of arms suppliers to India—just as India officially became the globe’s largest arms importer. And it’s not just missiles and drones: India has increasingly leaned on Tel Aviv for high-tech warfare, scooping up the Phalcon airborne radar and advanced electronic surveillance systems along with equipment to retrofit now-rickety Soviet-era weaponry. In New Delhi, Israel is seen not just as a ready and competent supplier, but as a kindred nation. “India and Israel both imagine themselves as democracies under siege,” said Bhairav Acharya, a legal analyst with the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore think tank. “Relationships are extremely one-sided and based almost solely on combat weapons.”

For India, the Shabab terrorist attack in Nairobi last month struck a nerve. It was eerily reminiscent of the siege by a militant group from Pakistan in Mumbai, five years ago, in which more than 160 people were killed, including the local Chabad rabbi and his wife. Since then, the Indian government has grown closer to Israel, which was one of the first nations to come to its aid in 2008. Their courtship began as a multilateral relationship, with the United States acting as partner and matchmaker. But the road between Jerusalem and Delhi no longer passes through Washington. “In fact, if the U.S. were to take an active interest, it would complicate this relationship,” said Harsh V. Pant, a defense studies lecturer at King’s College, London.

As India continues to ramp up its military might, it looks set to grow closer still, as Israel seeks to cement its relationship not just with a customer for its defense industries but with a friend among the world’s major non-Islamic powers. In November, the two nations are set to hold a seventh round of talks on a bilateral free-trade agreement. If finalized, it’s expected to broaden economic exchange beyond government contracts, to private-sector deals in information technology, agriculture, and energy. “The relations between Israel and India are not based on the relations between India and the U.S.,” Ohad Horsandi, the Israeli Embassy spokesman in New Delhi, told me. “These are completely independent relations.”

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India did not open diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992, making it the last non-Arabic or Islamic country to do so. The two nations, born a year apart, started off on shaky ground. India voted against the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947, largely at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi, who opposed the tactics of militant Jewish nationalist groups in Mandatory Palestine. Yet India recognized Israel in 1950, under Jawaharlal Nehru, and according to multiple accounts, the Mossad and its Indian equivalent, the Research and Analysis Wing—known as the R&AW—spent decades in covert cooperation.

A month after establishing direct ties, Benjamin Netanyahu, then a deputy minister, told a visiting Indian journalist that his country had “developed expertise in dealing with terrorism … and would be happy to share it with India.” Defense, the one thread that tied the two countries, was now the bedrock. In 1998, the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, or BJP, came to power in Delhi, bringing with it an avowed, ardent stance on Pakistan and terrorism and a wobbly history with India’s Muslims. In 2000, Israel hosted LK Advani, the right-wing BJP elder statesman. The BJP returned the favor and invited Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, to Delhi in September of 2003. But that same year the party also invited Iran’s President Mohamad Khatami, a prelude to a naval warship partnership with Iran.

In 2004, the Congress Party, which has a large base of Muslim voters, took over the coalition government and in the years since has struck a cooler public stance regarding Israel. Secrecy has become the modus operandi. “The defense partnership between the two states continues to grow, quietly, out of the public glare,” said Pant.

The growing relationship with Israel has coincided with Delhi’s efforts to ease its military dependency on Russia. (India, unlike China, has had a rough time producing its own weapons.) In 2007, Israel surpassed France as the second leading military supplier to India, after Russia. India, whose neighbors are primarily equipped with Russian weaponry, continues to look for alternatives. And Russia has shown increased irritation; in April, Moscow’s ambassador to Delhi suggested that Russia may withdraw from military tenders, after losing a series of deals for everything from fighter jets to attack helicopters—something the Russians blamed on “gimmicks” in India’s government contracts.

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Israel and India, a Match Made in the U.S., Develop Their Own Military Romance

How last month’s attacks in Nairobi, a reminder of the Mumbai siege, may bring them even closer together