Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a signing ceremony in Saint Petersburg.

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Narendra Modi arrived in Tel Aviv Tuesday

Visit marks 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations

New Delhi CNN  — 

Narendra Modi has become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, arriving in Tel Aviv on Tuesday as part of a three-day visit to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

Commenting on social media ahead of his departure, Modi said he was looking forward to holding extensive talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he called “my friend … who shares a commitment for vibrant India-Israel ties.”

“From boosting economic ties to furthering people-to-people interactions, my Israel visit has a wide range of programs,” added Modi.

The landmark visit includes meetings with industry leaders and members of the Indian community as well as Moshe Holtzberg, a boy whose parents were killed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace in the Rose Garden during a joint press conference  at the White House in Washington, DC, June 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Watch Trump and Modi's bear hug
00:59 - Source: CNN

Important ally

Arun K. Singh, India’s former ambassador to Israel, believes the milestone trip “will enhance awareness” within both countries of the “increased significance of the relationship.”

Israel has in recent years become an important defense supplier for India. The two countries signed an air and missile defense deal worth almost $2 billion in April, in what Israel termed the “largest defense contract deal” in its history.

“There has been a focus on defense and counter-terrorism and it is important. This kind of cooperation enhances the confidence that countries have with each other,” Singh told CNN.

The trip follows Modi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington on June 27, in which Modi was seen hugging Trump in front of the world’s cameras, a sign of affection reserved for the leaders of a select few countries.

“One of the reasons that Israel and the West are really important for India is that China can outspend India any day and every day,” said Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

“The West and Israel focus on the quality of technology and that becomes a massive force equalizer… Israel, Europe and America do not sell to China, and that’s really the biggest aspect of that India and Israel relationship.”

Modi’s Israel trip comes amid an escalating border dispute between India and neighboring China, with both sides accusing the other of territorial intrusions.

Not just about defense

Economic relations between India and Israel have flourished since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1992.

Bilateral trade at the time was worth $200 million and mainly consisted of diamonds. By 2016, that figure had skyrocketed to $4.16 billion, excluding defense expenditure.

In 2016, India accounted for 3.3% of Israel’s trade, with imports and exports including agriculture, textiles, machinery, and chemical and mineral products.

Under a program titled “Make in India,” Modi has been looking for foreign companies to set up production in India. Modi’s trip, which includes scheduled meetings with Israeli CEOs, is likely to be viewed as an opportunity to encourage Israeli businesses – ranging from diamond merchants to tech firms – to sell their wares in India.

“Defense has been a primary driver, but I think this visit will be about broadening the relationship,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign-policy fellow at Brookings India.

“Both sides are trying to create an enabling environment for a broader relationship. When India looks West, there aren’t too many stable democracies anymore. Same with Israel, so when it looks East, it sees some stability in India. That creates a natural convergence of interest.”

Modi and Netanyahu are expected to announce agreements and address the media on Wednesday.

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Modi addresses Congress as U.S.-India ties bloom
02:14 - Source: CNN

Palestinian visit not in the cards

In May, Modi hosted Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, for a state dinner and affirmed “India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause.” He later added that he “earnestly hopes for early resumption of talks between Palestine and Israel leading to the establishment of an independent and sovereign State of Palestine.”

However, Modi’s schedule does not include a visit to Ramallah, the city where the Palestinian Authority is based.

According to Jaishankar, this has little to do with making a political statement.

“India has always had a very good relationship with Palestinian authorities. When India’s President Pranab Mukherjee went to Israel in 2015, he visited Ramallah. India is not going to abandon the Palestinian cause, but Israel is certainly more important.”