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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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Ties now extend to India’s civilian technology industries. Commercial trade has boomed in the past 20 years, from $180 million to $6 billion, and both nations have invested heavily in technology industries. In May Israel opened its third Indian consulate in Bangalore, the country’s technology center. “In every sphere, there’s very strong and deep cooperation,” Horsandi, the embassy spokesman, told me.

Meanwhile, India’s relations with the United States have grown increasingly fraught; Washington remains frustrated at India’s intransigence in opening markets, and Delhi is irked that American companies feel entitled to sweetheart defense contracts. “The U.S. has a very narrow understanding of India. Israel doesn’t make similar demands,” said PR Kumaraswamy, the author of India’s Israel Policy, who spent nine years studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Late last month, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, was in Washington for meetings that primarily revolved around newly heated tensions with Pakistan. “Israel,” Kumaraswamy continued, “looks more to India as someone who it can do business with.”

But domestic politics do interfere. In the past three years, the Congress Party has been beset by rampant corruption scandals. Its minister of defense, a politician with a incorruptible reputation, is now fighting to reduce the influence India’s powerful middlemen—the floating agents that help foreigners navigate India’s bureaucratic thickets, many of whom have ties to Israeli defense contractors—and has made a particular show of prosecuting graft involving Israel. “Most of the corruption reflects the problems with India,” said Kumaraswamy. “In the Israeli case, it becomes a political football.”

In 2010, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, recommended that the defense ministry blacklist six foreign companies for involvement in bribery scams with the departed head of the Ordnance Factories Board, India’s defense manufacturing body. The list included companies from Russia, Germany, and Singapore but also named Israel Military Industries, a firearms and ammunition manufacturer. In March of 2012, the ministry complied, banning the named contractors from operating in India for 10 years.

The investigation was remarkably similar to one the CBI launched in 2006 around an Indian Navy contract for the Barak I, a short-range air defense system. The Navy’s two contractors were Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael, which was accused of sending kickbacks to India’s defense minister in 2000. While that case is still pending, neither IAI nor Rafael—which makes the Iron Dome, among other products—have been threatened with blacklisting.

Last December, India’s foreign investment board shot down Rafael’s joint venture request with Mahindra & Mahindra. The decision was seen as a consequence of the CBI investigation. But Acharya, the analyst, told me it was a bureaucratic move, not a retributive or diplomatic one—India’s public sector wants to maintain its domestic monopoly on weapons production. Delhi, he said, is still eager to move forward with Rafael, which is in the midst of a $2 billion project with the Indian Navy for Barak 8, an advanced iteration of the surface-to-air missile.

In June, Haaretz, citing a British government report, claimed that Israel had covertly been shipping military equipment to five countries, including Pakistan. Israeli officials promptly denied the claims and lobbied swiftly to clear the air with New Delhi. Multiple analysts I spoke with believed the reports were untrue. “Israel understands India’s red lines,” Kumaraswamy concluded, its darkest being the lengthy, nuclear-capable conflict with Pakistan.

In July, the Indian defense ministry let slip that it is considering buying an Iron Dome system from Rafael, specifically for purposes of defending against short-range Pakistani missiles. Five months earlier, Alon Ushpiz, Israel’s ambassador to Delhi, had unveiled the system in Bangalore. He had no accompanying Bollywood number. Ushpiz simply introduced India, which was seeing the Iron Dome for the first time, as Israel’s “intimate partner.”

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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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