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June 1, 2015 4:41 pm

Officials, Experts Hail India-Israel Ties as Prime Minister Modi Announces Historic Visit to Jewish State

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi will make an historic visit to Israel later this year, the Times of India reported on Monday.

An Israeli diplomatic source said Jerusalem was “excited and happy” at the announcement.

“We’ve got fantastic relations with the Indians that have just been getting better and better over the years. We’ve got a significant commercial relationship, which has been growing dramatically,” said the source.

The Indian premier, who has warmed up relations with Israel since assuming office in May 2014, will likely travel to Israel this fall as part of a visit to the region, the newspaper reported.

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His visit would likely also include stops in the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt, though the Indian Foreign Ministry did not fix a date for the trip.

While the official state visit will be the first of its kind for a sitting Indian leader, Modi already visited Israel in 2007 as part of a high-tech agricultural conference when he was leader of the Indian state of Gujarat from 2001-2014.

Israel and India have maintained diplomatic relations since 1992, which is relatively late compared to other Asian countries in the region, such as Thailand, Nepal and the Philippines, all of which stretch back some 50 years.

But strategically India has become extremely significant for Israel in recent years, especially as it controls much of South Asia’s seas.

Though China is a larger trade partner of Israel’s — investing heavily in Israeli high-tech industries and perhaps on the road to surpassing even the U.S. in this realm — Israel has a lucrative arms trade with India because U.S. restrictions on Israeli arms sales do not affect these defense ties, as they do with China.

Just recently, India announced it was gearing up to conduct a naval test of the joint Israeli-Indian developed Barak 8 missile-defense system, culminating a $1.1 billion arms deal with Israel signed back in 2009.

In 2013, Israeli trade with India amounted to $4.39 billion.

India’s prime minister shares a warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Modi congratulating Netanyahu on his fourth election victory in Hebrew.

Earlier this year, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited India and met with the Indian premier.

India’s relationship with Israel is underlined by the harder stand Modi has taken against homegrown and cross-border terrorism, said Dinesh J. Sharma, an associate research professor at the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at SUNY-Binghamton.

“Modi is strong on anti-terrorism,” he said, and has “tried to set stronger ties with the U.S. on that as well,” highlighted by President Barack Obama’s trip to India earlier this year.

India wants stronger surveillance and intelligence technologies for its border with Pakistan and its monitoring of the Indian Ocean, which is crucial to Israel’s relationship with India, he said.

He said the Indians “identify” a terrorist threat from the Middle East that has potential to “spread through Afghanistan and Pakistan into India.”

Though there has not been a large scale terror attack in India in recent years, “on the border between India and Pakistan there have been ongoing events and skirmishes between groups infiltrating from Pakistan into India.”

In 2008, a series of terrorist attacks in Mumbai targeted the Nariman House Jewish center, among other targets, and in 2012 a bomb exploded on an Israeli diplomatic car in the Indian capital of New Delhi.

The Muslim minority populations in India and Israel are both around a fifth of the population. There is some “unease among Muslims about Modi,” said Sharma, and they probably feel “somewhat unsure” about Modi’s courting of Israel.

Additionally, India has been “walking a tightrope” between its relations with Israel and Iran, which used to be one of India’s largest providers of crude oil before U.N. and Western sanctions caused those purchases to diminish in the last few years.

Modi’s visit to Israel is “likely not connected to the Iran deal,” said a source at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

India, like Iran, Israel and Pakistan, is not a member of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty.

JNS contributed to this report.

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