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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.

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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