ON NOVEMBER 28TH, 2018, speaking to a roomful of India’s most highly regarded defense strategists, the chief of staff of the Indian Army, Bipin Rawat, urged his colleagues and his country to shed their concerns about collateral damage. Look at Israel, he said: “When you talk of strike drones, how does the Israeli strike the Hezbollah . . . ?” A vehicle is marked, a drone takes off, and boom: “God help you if you’re in the following vehicle—you’re also gone.”
Less than 30 years ago, the very thought of a prominent Indian official openly admiring Israeli military policies toward Palestinians would have been an incredible scandal. But in a reversal of India’s official policy toward Israel for most of both country’s histories, relations have been quietly developing since the early 1990s and are now warmer than ever. Since Narendra Modi came to power five years ago as prime minister, India’s diplomatic policies have shifted dramatically in Israel’s favor, and away from India’s traditional alliance with the Palestinians.
The partnership came to a public zenith when Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, in July 2017. With frequent hugs, fond glances, and long walks on picturesque Israeli beaches, Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on an effusive display of personal and political affection. The “bromance” attracted a storm of media attention, and to many commentators signaled a new era of Middle East/Asian politics.
On the historic visit, Modi and Netanyahu signed new cooperative deals on water, space technology, and agriculture. But the biggest and most significant deals have centered on defense. As South Asia’s sole nuclear power for decades, India could mostly deter threats from aggressive neighbors. But since Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, Indian military responses to attacks have been extremely limited, for fear of aggravating the possibility of a nuclear war. This has made reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision weaponry increasingly appealing for India. Israel’s specialization in high-tech weaponry, from drones to guided missiles—battle-tested in Palestine—has made officials like Rawat both envious and supportive of Israeli tactics, transforming Israel into a desirable international partner.
Israel has proven to be a reliable weapons supplier, unburdened by moral questions about India’s use of its arsenal. Over the last two decades, India has become Israel’s largest customer. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2014 to 2018 India accounted for a whopping 46% of all Israeli weapons sales (not including small arms). In 2018, Reuters reported that India buys around one billion dollars in weapons from Israel every year. (...)