By Ajay Thakur
For last 20 years even though India has the most intimate of strategic relations with Israel, it remained under wrap. Now that is unwrapping itself. One admirable quality of our PM Narendra Modi is that he means and does what he says. “He believes India’s natural game is to play on its front foot,” said a senior Indian diplomat, using a cricket analogy. When he finally visits Israel, Narendra Modi will go down in history books as the first Indian prime minister to visit that country.
India recognized the birth of Isarel in 1950 but established diplomatic relation only in 1992. This caution had arisen from a fear of a sectional backlash both at home and abroad as well as a residual belief in “third worldism” and India’s historic support for Palestinian statehood.
Today no other country is so intertwined with India’s national security on so many levels. Both share nuclear military technology – neither does so with any other country. Israel, for example, has provided crucial assistance on how to stabilize a nuclear warhead arsenal as small as India’s. Israeli electronics are what make India’s Russian-made fighters and cruise missiles superior to their Chinese variants. Israeli cyber-security firms are the only foreign ones to receive security classifications on a par with the best Indian ones. Israel too has benefitted with sales of $10 billion in the past decade, India is easily the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weapons.
Israel has proved to be all weather friend by openly standing by India’s side during Kargil war. Israel sent over a dozen technical teams to help, providing guided missiles from its own arsenal to knock out Pakistani-held bunkers. Israel has labeled Pakistan an “enemy state” and has a tighter ban on its citizens doing anything with Pakistan than India does.
Given this unparalleled degree of geopolitical convergence a visit by an Indian Prime Minister was long overdue.The fear of Muslim backlash was absurd with host of Sunni Arab states in West Asia seeing Israel as a military ally. Ms Swaraj has put to rest the fears that India is building its ties with Israel at the expense of its equation with Palestine by saying that there would be “no change in India’s policy towards Palestine”. Israel has been a steady ally of India for years. Mr Modi’s upcoming visit is a recognition of this, among other things.
The two PM’s met in a New York hotel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014, “We are very excited by the prospects of greater and greater ties with India. We think the sky’s the limit,” Netanyahu said, describing the countries as “ancient civilizations” that are also democracies.
Modi proudly told Netanyahu of the historic Jewish community in India, and of the fact that “India is the only country where anti-Semitism has never been allowed to come up and where Jews have never suffered and have lived as an integral part of our society.”
The then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon became the first premier of that country to visit India in 2003 during the NDA Government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee. He is credited with transforming bilateral relations from diminutive defence and trade cooperation to enhanced strategic ties.
An elated Israel has welcomed the announcement of Narendra Modi’s visit to the Jewish nation, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister, saying it would lead to “tightening” of the bilateral ties and further expand the relation and take them to new heights.
Commonality of interest between India and Israel
Strategic Ties: Israel has emerged as India’s third largest supplier only behind US and Russia.There is increasing cooperation in the IT sector and counter-terrorism, especially cyber terrorism.
The Indian Navy has been witnessing some heavy refurbishments to countermand China’s increasing naval capacities. The Navy had also put in a requisition of 300 more Barak missiles to equip the Brahmaputra Class ‘guided missile frigates’ namely the Ranvir, Bramhaputra, Betwa and Bias.
Make in India: Cooperation in the defense sector is on a steady rise over the years, with the relationship moving from that of a buyer-seller to joint production and joint R&D. A majority of the Barak 8 missiles, jointly developed by India and Israel, is manufactured in India. Recently Moshe Ya’alon arrived in India, the first visit by an Israeli defense minister since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992.
“We are open to more or less (selling) anything. We believe that we have the better product,” he said at the Israeli pavilion. “We see India as a partner and a friend. That is why we are ready to share technology,” he said, adding that he was looking for ways to upgrade the defense relationship.
Under Modi, Israel and India have pushed ahead with the joint development of an aerial defense system, which passed its first trial simulating combat conditions in November.
In October, India opted to buy Rafael’s Spike anti-tank guided missile in a deal worth $525 million, choosing the Israeli product over a U.S. offer of its Javelin missiles.
DRDO is gearing up for a joint project with Israel in developing a ‘man portable high tech battlefield systems’ for the Indian Army. The Futuristic Infantry Soldier as a Systems Program (F –INSAS), also referred to as the C2, portable will be equipped with a computer coded monitoring system, that can observe and keep track of the extreme desert climates in the southern regions of the country to the cold mountainous weather conditions in the LoC between Pakistan and India. C2 happens to be the ambitious project of the Indian Army of conjoining the 1.1 million Indian soldiers stationed throughout the vast subcontinent of India.
Indian Navy will soon test fire a long-range surface-to-air missile, jointly developed by India and Israel, aiming to enhance its capabilities against incoming missiles, planes and drones. If the test is successful, it will pave the way for final installation of Barak 8 missile on board Indian warships. The missile had undergone a successful test in Israel last November.
More than just security: The Indian PM sees Israel as more than just a security partner; he also evinces keen interest in areas of technology and, biotechnology, to increase agricultural productivity and sees Israel as a partner in harnessing these.
Half of his discussions with Israel would most likely be the areas of state-of-the-art water knowhow, dairy etc. Israel is also a leader in software, pharmaceuticals and has one of the world’s most advanced tech start-up ecosystems. Indo–Israel probable ventures are in areas of Space and Aeronautics, Water Management, Nanotechnology, Water Technology, Alternative Energy, Drip Irrigation and Desalination Techniques.
Trade: India has become one of Israel’s largest trading partners. Trade and cooperation between the two nations extend beyond defense to agriculture, water desalination and space. Many Israeli companies feel India has an edge over China in being a stable democracy with an effective court system to protect patents. A large population of technically qualified English-speaking people also makes India attractive for Israeli investments. Trade Surplus for India stands at $962.33 million with exports at $3090.18m and import of 2127.85m. Bilateral trade, excluding defense, in 2014 was at $4.5 billion and this is set to grow.
P.R. Kumaraswamy, a professor of West Asian studies at JNU says “It’s an economic priority, not a political one. In that context, India’s engagement will be on the economic agenda in the Middle East, not on political friendships and things like that and whichever country is willing to be a part of India’s economic development will be a priority.”
Terrorism: Israel and India face terror threats from organizations with similar radical ideology such as al-Qaida, ISIS, LeT and others. Pakistan has waged an undeclared war to “bleed India with thousand cuts” India has been hardly compensated for supporting Palestine. India may be home to the world’s second largest Muslim population, but it has been consistently blocked from involvement in the OIC.
India’s relationship with Israel is underlined by the harder stand Modi has taken against homegrown and cross-border terrorism. He 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.
Tourism: About 50000 thousand Israeli tourists throng places like Goa, Old Manali and Dharamshala and about equal number of Indian tourists visit Israel. In many of these areas, Hebrew signs on businesses and public transportation are not uncommon. Dozens of Chabad-operated community centres across India allow many Israelis to celebrate their holidays and observe religious traditions. There is immense scope of taking tourism to a much higher level.
Personal bond: Modi has developed strong personal relations with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. When the latter won re-election in March, Modi tweeted in Hebrew and English: “Mazel tov, my friend Bibi @Netanyahu. I remember our meeting in New York last September warmly.” Likewise when Modi got overwhelming mandate Netanyahu was the first to congratulate.
Though odds are heavily loaded in favour of stronger relationship with Israel but recalibration is not going to be a cakewalk for Modi.For example Iran is Enemy No 1 for Israel and a partner for India. But exclusionary relationships are a pipedream in today’s complex global polity, which calls for self-interested pragmatism.
(Ajay Thakur is a former IAS officer)