C3S Paper No. 0078/ 2015
Courtesy: South Asia Monitor
Israel is an important supplier of military hardware to India and the quantity and quality of this relationship is being further enhanced, as India is now the biggest purchaser of Israel’s defense industries. Besides armaments, the relationship is bolstered by the two countries cooperating on the question of cross-border terrorism. For both India and Israel, the concern of nuclear terrorism, or the sly patronage of state support to the proliferation of nuclear material to terrorist groups is also a common concern.
The much spoken about defence relationship between the two countries has its roots well beyond the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1992. For example, Israel supplied much needed armaments to India when China and Pakistan attacked India in 1962, 1965 and 1971. Unconfirmed, but widely cited accounts also suggest that Israel was assisting India to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Pakistani nuclear site in Kahuta, but this was abandoned after the American CIA intervened on the plan.
This previously clandestine relationship was given its widest reportage during the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan. According to reports, the Israeli counter-terrorism agency Shabak is helping India in fighting terrorism in Kashmir. This cooperation may also relate to an unfortunate incident in 1991, when one Israeli tourist was killed during a botched hostage-taking scenario in Kashmir. At least six Israelis were abducted by a lesser known Islamist group, which threatened to kill them, but were overpowered by the hostages.
Despite robust military relations, ties between the two countries on civilian uses were limited, at least in public glare. However, it is now known that the relationship has diversified into various collaborative projects, including water desalination and conservation, nanotechnology, space technology, pharmaceuticals, solar energy and information technology.
Israel which has achieved great success in increasing agricultural products has opened 28 centres of excellence in India for research and development of agricultural technology. Bilateral trade between both the countries which was $200 million in 1992 became $4.4 billion in 2013.
There is strong collaboration between both the countries in space technology. Both countries have signed Memorandum of Understanding in the fields of science and technology including space. Israel cooperated in the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan mission, while India helped launch the TecSAR satellite for Israel. Scientists of ISRO and Israel also built RISAT-2 which was launched in 2009. This collaboration is particularly useful due to the advances for each country in specific technology which reduces costs.
Despite the advances made in the relationship, a political dialogue between the two countries remains mired in sensitivities, particularly on the Indian side. While then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon paid a state visit to Delhi in 2003, there has not been a reciprocal visit by an Indian premier.
The highest level ranking politician to visit Israel in recent times has been Home Minister Rajnath Singh in November 2014. The highest the two countries have otherwise got in a dialogue was on the sidelines of the UN General assembly in September 2014, when both Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had a brief conversation.
Modi also met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Singapore on the sidelines of the funeral services for Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
While it may appear to be a rosy relationship, the lack of political will, which is primarily based on India’s geo-strategic alliances with the Gulf states and its own Muslim minority, is starting to become a thorny issue.
As India plays a wider role in the International comity, its relationship with arch Israeli foes including Iran, would be a concern for both countries. Allegations that the Iranian secret service was behind a 2012 attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi has not been given public closure. Furthermore, the traditional Indian position on the question of a Palestinian state is a factor which successive governments must face, especially in times of great humanitarian distresses caused by the conflicts in the region.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was hard pressed to defend Israel during Operation Protective Edge (the Israeli military operation launched in Gaza) in 2014. The dichotomy in how the government has to tread on the question of Israel’s military response can be gauged, through its blocking of a resolution which would condemn Israel in its own parliament, but backing a UN probe into Israel’s actions.
While India and Israel jointly face common threats from jihadists, and constituted a Joint Terror Commission in 2000; there is a level of difference in how the regional threats are viewed in the interests of both countries. For example, India has not included the Palestinian organization Hamas or Lebanon- based Hezbollah as proscribed organizations, however cosmetic the changes may imply in India. Such small measures could go a long way in bolstering confidence that the Indian agencies view Israeli concerns with equal interest.
India also has a well-documented list of concerns over its overly one-sided trade balance with the oil-rich Gulf states which have clandestinely supported several regional terrorist groups. As the current levels of sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis further expands, it threatens India’s oil security. As a means of gaining energy independence, India, Israel and the United States should jointly work together in developing alternatives to the limited resource of oil, and work towards newer fuels particularly renewable energy.
As both countries work towards expanding their relationship into a number of diverse fields, the compatibility between the two can help work as a bridge for Indian access to key technology and influential lobbies in the Western world, while Israel can gain from a significant strategic partner and a bridge to Southeast Asia.
It is time India realigns its relationship with Israel to iron out the differences at the earliest and promote the tangible gains which this relationship has the potential to achieve.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)