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India-Israel Ties and the New Government:

The bilateral relations between India and Israel, today, are going in a direction as expected by many ever since the 2014 election results were declared. The thumping victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by defeating the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that governed the country for ten years, has ushered in a new level of engagements with Israel. Under the leadership of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the military-security cooperation with Israel is witnessing a rapid enhancement. Simultaneously, cooperation in the fields of science and technology, water management and agriculture are also being given immense importance. On the economic front, both the countries are doing fairly well with the bilateral trade currently standing at US$6 billion.

India’s defence and military relations to flourish under BJP rule

Currently, Israel is the second largest arms suppliers of India with a bilateral arms trade over the last decade estimated at US$10 billion. Undoubtedly, defence cooperation has become one of the most important pillars of Indo-Israeli ties and it is likely to get further boost in the days to come. It has been almost six months since the BJP-led NDA government came into power and there have been visible improvements in this aspect of bilateral ties.

As in the past, the BJP-led government has already started initiatives to enhance defence ties with Israel. Meanwhile, Modi’s cabinet has a few ministers who are in favour of forging closer cooperation with Israel in all the sectors, and one of them is Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj who once called the Jewish state “a reliable partner.”1 Just before the 2014 election results were announced, Narendra Modi was even referred to as “Israel’s best friend in South Asia”.2 This was mainly considering his long association with the Jewish state and its leaders. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had visited Israel in 2006. Gujarat has deep economic and trade links with Israel which has has invested billions of dollars for various projects in the state. In January 2013, Modi personally hosted the Israeli ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz in his state, and discussed various avenues for cooperation. As a result, Modi has a fair knowledge and experience of dealing with Israel. The Israeli envoy expressed his full hope of realising the potential of India-Israel relations in various fields under the new government.3The overall impetus was given when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Modi and congratulated the latter on his success in the national elections and pledged to deepen cooperation between the two countries.

Recent Developments:

A month after Modi came to power, India’s Defence Secretary R.K. Mathur paid a three-day visit to Israel from 1-3 July and discussed arms deals, including missile development programme, and also the procurement of two Israeli-made Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) for the Indian Air Force. Israel has endorsed its Iron Dome air defence system to India for protection against incoming long and short range missile threats. New Delhi, however, has not decided as yet on purchasing this anti missile system. During late 2012 and mid 2013, Indian armed forces had started discussing about this system and its suitability in the Indian context.

Further, both the countries have clinched two important arms deal, which had been delayed for several years due to various reasons.

The first breakthrough for the Modi-led government was the announcement to procure the much-needed Barak-1 missile, manufactured by the Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd (IAI). This is a significant step particularly considering the depleted defensive capabilities of Indian warships. With delivery scheduled for December 2015, fourteen ships that presently lack missile systems will be outfitted with the Barak-1. A little more than a decade ago, India and Israel defence cooperation had been plagued by allegations of bribery and allegations, pertaining to this missile system. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) even conducted a probe into the deals with IAI and Rafael regarding the supply of these missiles. The deals were entered into by the then BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2000. Allegations of receiving kickbacks were levelled against several Indian officials, including the then Defence Minister, defence personnel and a few middlemen. It was only in December 2013 after a detailed probe that the investigation was closed by the CBI with the admission that there was no evidence against the accused.4

The final nod given by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in September 2014, under the chairmanship of Modi, for the acquisition of 262 missiles5 has come as a big relief to the Indian Navy, given its rapidly dwindling stock of anti-ballistic missiles for its frontline battleships. The Indian Navy has been voicing concerns over its deficiencies, with ships operating without missile defence systems. The announcement of the procurement at a whopping cost of US$144 million is thus a welcome move.6 The clearance given to this stalled missile deal itself is an indication of India’s preference for Israeli-made missile defence systems. It is, at the same time, to be acknowledged that Israel has faced a stiff competition from other mega foreign arms vendors such as the United States (US).

The US factor in Israeli arms sales is not a new topic; it has been there ever since the latter has emerged as an important arms exporter since the 1970s onwards. Due to fears of competition, the US even scuttled Israeli arms exports to a few countries in the past in Latin America, Europe and Asia as well. In the Indian context, too, the US was trying really hard to sell its Javelin missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Since the last one year, there had been a fierce competition between Javelin and Israel’s Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The US has made several efforts to tap the lucrative Indian defence market with the Pentagon even demonstrating its willingness to offer “groundbreaking” defence technologies to India, including helicopters and UAVs.7 There have already been discussions between the two governments for joint development and production of items such as drones and missiles. But what have remained as the constraining factor in enhancing their defence cooperation are the entrenched issues on military technology transfer mechanisms. It is because of this reason that India opted for the Israel-made Spike ATGMs.

During late-October 2014, after a prolonged delay, at a meeting of its Defence Acquisition Council, India finally decided to buy 8,356 Israeli-made Spike ATGMs and 321 launchers at a cost of US$525 million.8 The deal for this missile remained stuck since 2010. The Indian Army had conducted several rounds of trial on this system. This major breakthrough in India-Israel defence ties under the Modi government has come at a juncture when border tension with China, and skirmishes along the India-Pakistan border were on a new high. In the words of India’s new Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar, “National security is the paramount concern of the government. All hurdles and bottlenecks in the procurement process should be addressed expeditiously so that the pace of acquisition is not stymied.”9

The Spike missile deal should not be looked only from the prism of an arms trade between India and Israel. It has sent out a strong message to other potential arms suppliers who are eyeing the lucrative Indian defence market that India not only wants finished products but is also interested in getting technologies for its defence indigenisation programmes. New Delhi decided against Washington’s offer for its Javelin missiles because the exact extent of the Technology Transfer to the Indian defence firm Bharat Dynamics Ltd was not clearly defined; the cost of the Spike ATGM was cheaper than the Javelin, and “cancelling the Israeli deal at the last moment would have sent wrong signals to the international community.” 10 The issue on technology transfer also assumes significance as the present government under Modi is promoting its “Make in India” policy, and defence production is well within this initiative. Israel, unlike the US, has agreed to transfer technologies and this is an important step in India’s military modernisation drive. From now on, it appears that India’s arms purchase will come along with the clause of technology transfer from the suppliers, and Israel would not be spared from this emerging trend. Considering this, Israel cannot afford to remain complacent in its arms sales to India. The Israeli defence industries, rather, should capitalise on the new opportunities provided by India to manufacture in the country under Modi’s project.

During 2013, Israel witnessed a decline in its arms exports worldwide with a value of US$6.54 billion as compared to that of US$7.2 in 2012.11 But with mega defence deals signed between Israel and a few Asian countries, the volume of the former’s arms exports could see a slight improvement during 2014. Moreover, in continuation to its military imports, India is considering to procure more Israeli-made Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) surveillance aircraft in a deal estimated to cost over US$1 billion. India had already purchased Phalcon AWACS in May 2009 and March 2010. Acquisition of this sophisticated system would further boost Indian Air Force’s (IAF) detecting capabilities of troop build-ups and movement of enemy aircraft along India’s frontiers. Now, if this deal gets clinched, then it is going to be a boom for Israel’s defence industries. The Asia-Pacific region was the main destination for Israeli arms during 2013, earning US$3.91 billion.

Apart from arms trade, India and Israel have also agreed to cooperate intensively on other military-security arenas. The seed for further enhancement of relations between the two countries was laid at the meeting between Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York during late-September 2014. This was the first meeting between an Israeli Prime Minister and his Indian counterpart in the last 11 years. Despite robust relations in areas related to defence, intelligence and agriculture, the political ties between the two countries have remained somewhat low-profile. After the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 to New Delhi, no other Israeli PM or any of their foreign ministers visited India in recent years. Likewise, from the Indian side, while no PM has ever visited Israel, the latest visit by a foreign minister to the West Asian nation was made by S.M. Krishna in January 2012.

Owing to various domestic pressures, particularly the presence of 175 million Muslim population in India, New Delhi is keeping its political ties with Israel a low-key affair. This reason was attributed for the delay in establishing diplomatic relations in 1992.12 Nevertheless, in order to add more vigour to the already-thriving relations, attempts have to be made unrelentingly to forge stronger political relations, and this would require reciprocal visits by both Indian and Israeli PMs and other key ministers, sooner or later. It is to be seen if Modi would create history by becoming the first Indian PM to visit the Jewish state. Modi was invited by his Israeli counterpart during the New York-meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the significance of the Indo-Israeli ties by saying “sky is the limit” for its growth. While such breakthrough would take the bilateral relations to further heights, one cannot rule out, at the same time, serious backlash within India from those corners which are vehemently opposed to New Delhi’s continuing ties with Israel.

During the Modi-Netanyahu meeting, a wide range of issues, which are of mutual interests, were discussed. Netanyahu raised the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme, and both the leaders acknowledged the threat of global terrorism in their respective countries. Along with these, the need for further cooperation in the fields of technology, defence, agriculture and water management were emphasised.

For quite some time, India and Israel have been developing an interest to cooperate in cyber security areas. This is in the wake of ever increasing cyber crimes in both the countries. Being surrounded by hostile neighbourhoods, the need for cyber security framework for both the countries has gained immense importance. It is in this direction, the Israeli PM invited Modi to be a part of his project of national cyber defence authority.13 The project’s main objective is to create a link between the civilian and military authorities in both the countries. For India, the invitation from Israel has come at a time when it is striving to establish a strong cyber security defence system. Several concerned Indian establishments have begun efforts on setting up a cyber security framework. This is a potential area of cooperation between the two countries, and more headway is expected soon.

Further impetus to Indo-Israeli ties was giving by the three-day visit of the Israeli National Security Advisor Joseph Cohen to New Delhi in October 2014. This was a follow-up visit to the Prime Ministers’ meeting a month earlier. In his interactions with the Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and several other officials from the Indian External Affairs ministry, the visiting NSA expressed Israel’s willingness to cooperate with India in “all fields and at any level”. However, the agendas of the meetings concentrated on the situation in West Asia; terrorism and the threat it poses to both the countries; Israel’s view on Iranian nuclear programme as well as challenges that India and Israel share as two democracies in their respective regions, and solutions to those challenges.14

It is evident from the recent developments that both the countries are enhancing their cooperation on counterterrorism measures, apart from military trade. Given the emerging trend of terrorist activities both in West Asia and India, this dimension is definitely going to see significant cooperation between the two nations. India is likely to gain from Israeli expertise in counterterrorism measures along with surveillance skills at the borders (both land and sea). Israel is known for its excellent border protection technologies, and India has already used some of its equipments along the Line of Control (LOC) in Jammu and Kashmir. India has been a victim of not only cross-border infiltration but also seaborne intrusion, the 2008 Mumbai carnage being one such dastardly attack. It is in this regard that India is showing a great interest in acquiring Israeli border management skills.15

Potential Challenges:

India-Israel ties is not devoid of challenges. Immediately after it came to power, the Modi government faced the first heat from the opposition parties when the External Affairs Minister refused to discuss a resolution in the Rajya Sabha during the Gaza crisis. Prior to this, during the initial stages of the crisis, while expressing concern over the Israeli air strikes resulting in the loss of lives and damages to property in Gaza, India was also worried over the cross-border provocations by targeting parts of Israel with rockets. However, this balancing act was not appreciated by both Israeli and Palestinian diplomats in New Delhi who expressed their disappointment over India’s statement.16 Nevertheless, in view of the cordial relations shared by India with both the parties, Sushma Swaraj said, “Any discourteous reference to any friendly country can impact our relations with them”, and further reiterated India’s Palestinian policy that remains unchanged. The minister also mentioned the need to condemn the violence indulged in by both sides. However, New Delhi ultimately condemned Israel’s “disproportionate use of force in Gaza” at the UN Human Rights Council.17 India’s vote at the UN against Israel evoked several reactions: both criticism and appreciation.

India’s stand on the aforementioned crisis once again brought back to limelight how increasingly difficult a diplomatic tightrope it has to walk while maintaining a delicate balance between friendship with Israel and support to the Palestinian cause. It also reflects how domestic politics still influences New Delhi’s Israel or Palestinian policies or foreign policy in general.

Another major challenge which the Modi government would have to face from time to time is criticism about the burgeoning military-security relations itself. The enhanced ties came up for wide condemnation during the debate on the Gaza crisis. As in the past, the CPI (M) once again called upon the government to immediately halt India’s purchase of arms from Israel.18 This issue, however, did not lead to any major debate as Sushma Swaraj countered it by pointing out at how this left party, being in the coalition under the UPA-1 government, failed to stop the robust military cooperation between India and Israel. Nevertheless, India-Israel arms trade remains an important target-point for various left wingers and social activists in the country.

In the circumstances, dealings on matters related to military-security affairs are likely to be carried out cautiously though they would not be shelved. Fears are also being expressed in some quarters that close ties with the Jewish state, or an intensive military cooperation, could lead to the strengthening of radical Islamist movements and its support base in India. For instance, several Kashmiri citizens staged violent protests against the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza Strip. Simultaneously, there is a visible influence of the Sunni militant organisation, Islamic State (IS), on India, and the recently established Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has vowed to target the country.

Prospects Ahead:

Despite the challenges, the prospects for increased cooperation between the two countries are bright. The bilateral relationship between the two will continue to be driven by these close defence ties and shared national security challenges. At this juncture when both the countries are facing heightened terror threats, cooperation to combat this menace will continue to remain as one of the biggest incentives to expand their military-security ties. The visit of the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh to Israel, fourteen years after that of L.K. Advani in 2000 when he was holding the same portfolio, has opened more opportunities to strengthen the bilateral relations. Cooperation in counterterrorism is, for sure, going to be given an impetus. His meetings with high-profile Israeli leaders, including PM Benjamin Netanyahu, emphasised on strengthening India’s “very warm” ties with Israel. The increasing radicalisation of few Israeli-Arabs and Indian Muslim youth under the influence of the Islamic State (IS) is a common challenge faced by both the countries and this will drive their cooperation to new levels. Additionally, Indian PM, during his meeting with the former Israeli president, Shimon Peres, in New Delhi, “reiterated the strong desire of India to further expand and strengthen its relations with Israel both in traditional areas as well as in new areas of cooperation.”19

Further, there is likely to be an enhanced cooperation between the defence industries of both the countries. But this would depend on how successfully India could convince the Israeli arms industries to manufacture in the country by taking advantage of the “Make in India” initiative. India’s quest for its own technological advancement in the defence industry is an important push factor for the expansion of ties with Israel. The Israeli premier has expressed his country’s willingness to “discuss transfer and development of technologies with India.” In his words, “”Israeli industries, including the defence industries, could ‘make in India’ and thereby reduce costs of manufacturing products and systems developed by Israel.” 20A few areas that are likely to see technology transfers are aviation security, border protection and water harvesting.

Amid these prospects, it should not be ignored that while India desires to have strong ties with Israel, there are several related political implications that the government needs to factor in along the journey. The sensitive nature of the domestic politics, particularly with the presence of a huge Muslim population which plays significant roles in India’s political set-up, will continue to cast its shadow on the government’s dealings with Israel. There would be inevitable opposition and pressures on the Modi government to scale down ties with Israel. It is, therefore, yet to be seen how successfully the present government would manoeuvre its policies towards Israel while tackling the challenges coming on its away. But a gradual process has been begun by the Modi government to engage very intensively both with the Muslim community in India and with the larger West Asian Arab countries. The recently-concluded India-Arab League meeting in New Delhi is one such important step.

Endnotes

  1. Marissa Newman, “India’s new foreign minister a strong fan of Israel”, The Times of Israel, 27 May 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com/indias-new-foreign-minister-a-strong-fan-of…
  2. Palash Ghosh. “Narendra Modi, Israel’s Best Friend in South Asia”, International Business Times, 17 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/india-2014-elections-narendra-modi-israels-best-f…
  3. “With Narendra Modi as the new PM, India-Israel ties will improve, feels Alon Usphiz”, The Economic Times, 30 May 2014, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-05-30/news/50211150_1_…
  4. Neeraj Chauhan, “CBI closes Barak scandal case for lack of evidence”, The Times of India, 11 December 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/CBI-closes-Barak-scandal-case-f…
  5. Rajat Pandit, “Modi govt clears long-pending case for Israeli Barak missiles for warships”, The Times of India, 26 September 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Modi-govt-clears-long-pending-c…
  6. For a relevant reading, see Alvite Ningthoujam, “India’s Promising Israel’s Defense Ties”, The Diplomat, 9 October 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/10/indias-promising-israel-defense-ties/
  7. “US offers groundbreaking defence technologies to India”, The Times of India, 14 June 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/US-offers-groundbreaking-defenc…
  8. “India chooses Israel’s anti-tank guided missile ‘Spike’ over US’ Javelin missiles”, DNA, 25 October 2014, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-india-chooses-israel-s-anti-tank-gu…
  9. Nigam Prusty, “India picks Israel’s Spike anti-tank missile over U.S. Javelin – source”, Reuters, 25 October 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/25/india-missile-idUSL3N0SK088201…
  10. “India to Buy 8,000 of These Anti-Tank Missiles From Israel”, NDTV, 27 October 2014, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/india-to-buy-8-000-of-these-anti-tank-…
  11. Gili Cohen, “sraeli arms exports drop nearly $1 billion in 2013”, Haaretz, 7 October 2014, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.619700
  12. For a detailed analysis on India-Israel relations, see P.R. Kumaraswamy (2010), India’s Israel Policy, Columbia University Press: New York.
  13. Jayanth Jacob, “Israel offers India to join new cyber security body”, Hindustan Times, 29 September 2014, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/israel-offers-india-to-join-new…
  14. “Israel-India to Enhance Cooperation in All Fields”, News, Israeli Embassy, New Delhi, http://embassies.gov.il/delhi/NewsAndEvents/Pages/Israel%20India%20to%20…
  15. “India to seek Israeli expertise in managing borders”, DNA, 29 October 2014, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-india-to-seek-israeli-expertise-in-…
  16. Suhasini Haidar, “India’s stand leaves West Asian rivals disappointed”, The Hindu, 16 July 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-stand-leaves-west-asian-riv…
  17. “India Condemns Disproportionate Use of Force in Gaza: Full Statement”, NDTV, 24 July 2014, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/india-condemns-disproportionate-use-of…
  18. Anita Joshua, “India must halt purchase of Israeli arms: CPI(M)”, The Hindu, 24 July 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-must-halt-purchase-of-israel…
  19. “Prime Minister Receives Former Israeli President Shimon Peres” , News Updates,6 November 2014, Prime Minister of India, New Delhi, http://pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/prime-minister-receives-former-isr…
  20. “Israel positive about ‘Make in India’ campaign: Benjamin Netanyahu”, The Economic Times, 7 November 2014, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/israel-positive-…
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