India-Israel friendship is fine, but New Delhi has higher stakes in the Muslim world

By | January 13, 2018

City of Jerusalem seen from the Mount of Olives. (Photo: Dan/Flickr)

In the last week of December, as soon as news broke that India voted at the UN general assembly in favour of the resolution against the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many right-wingers on social media, led by known Israel mouthpieces, came down heavily upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In July, Modi had gone to Israel on a highly publicized visit, the first by an Indian prime minister. He had done so without paying a visit to Palestine, much to the delight of these people. For them, a major objective and a long-cherished dream had just been realized.

While much of the right-wing support for the Jewish state in India is driven by unadulterated hatred for Muslims, some pro-Israel commentators, especially those associated with pro-Israel thinktanks, claimed that India’s vote was “against its strategic interests”. Contrary to their misplaced beliefs, the vote was in line with New Delhi’s own interests, world sentiment, and international law.

The argument that the ties between India and Israel are of “strategic nature in New Delhi’s interests” is nothing but a myth. Should our leaders pay heed to these voices and veer from our traditional policy on Israel and Palestine, it could prove dangerous for the country. Therefore, the propaganda perpetuating this myth needs to be countered.

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What does India gain strategically by going against the rest of the world in general and antagonizing the Muslim world, especially the Arab-Gulf states, in particular? Let’s first look at the areas in which Israel is helping India.

Defence

The India-Israel defence cooperation has been the cornerstone of the relationship between the two countries. Although New Delhi and Tel Aviv did not have formal diplomatic ties, the cooperation began way back in 1962 during the brief India-China border war when Israel provided India with small arms and ammunition.

In the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Israel helped India with similar military equipment when the Soviet Union and the US refused to sell arms to India. In the 1971 war with Pakistan, India received Israeli weapons and ammunition, which helped India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) to arm and train the Mukti Bahini guerrillas in East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh.

There are several credible reports, like this one, that claim Israel asked India to give its warplanes refuelling facility on its territory to enable it to bomb Pakistan’s Kahuta nuclear facility in 1984 (when Islamabad’s nuclear programme was at a nascent stage), like it had bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Reports say that although India agreed to the proposal, Pakistan got to know about it through CIA, America’s Central Intelligence Agency, and threatened to bomb the Trombay reactor in retaliation. India aborted the plan. Again, it must be noted that Israel’s offer to India was in its own national interest, and it sought to take help from a common enemy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the covert cooperation between India and Israel became overt and gathered pace. India established full and formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.

During the 1999 India-Pakistan conflict in Kargil, Israel provided India with laser-guided precision bombs and targeting equipment, which proved effective in dislodging the entrenched Pakistani soldiers from the mountainous peaks.

In the last decade, Israel became one of the top suppliers of defence equipment to India. In fact, today, Israel is India’s second-largest defence supplier after Russia. India has purchased high-tech drones, radars, and three Phalcon airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) radar systems (mounted on Russian IL-76 platform), commonly known as “Awacs” (airborne warning and control system).

Apart from these, India also purchased a range of other weapons, military gadgets and equipment from Israel, such as anti-missile defence systems (like Barak), avionics for its ageing warplanes, boats, rifles, thermal radars, etc.

In 2017, for the first time, the Indian Air Force (IAF) participated in a multination air drill in Israel – the Blue Flag exercise – by sending a team of Garud commandos and a C-130J Hercules transport plane.

Given the size and complexity of the defence ties between the two countries, one can assume that it is of strategic nature. But is it really so?

Prior to the 1999 Kargil conflict, India was able to purchase Israeli military hardware and ammunition during wartime without much trouble despite not having formal diplomatic ties. After Israel’s assistance to India during the 1971 war, the-then Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, asked Indira Gandhi to establish formal diplomatic ties. Gandhi refused.

After the Kargil conflict, Indian media reported that Israel overcharged India for the ammunition it purchased during the war. It was good business for Tel Aviv than anything else. It was an emergency situation for India, and Israel made the most of it.

However, Israel has shown from time to time that business, not friendship, drives its policy on defence cooperation. Not only does Israel have robust defence ties with rogue regimes committing crimes against humanity, it also arms China – India’s biggest rival and military threat. Just as with India, Israel is now China’s second-largest supplier of defence equipment, much of which is high-tech. In fact, had it not been for the US, Israel would have sold the Phalcon Awacs to China. Despite this, defence cooperation between Beijing and Tel Aviv remains robust and high-volume, and encroaches into India’s concern areas.

However, that’s not all.

There is a history of Israel’s defence cooperation with Pakistan – India’s archenemy. Files from the British defence ministry disclosed the sale of Israeli military technology to Pakistan via Britain after the Kargil conflict; which, of course, both Tel Aviv and Islamabad vehemently denied. Not surprisingly, the report said India was aware of it. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Israel’s Mossad regularly share intelligence with each other. The true extent of Israel-Pakistan military cooperation is difficult to gauge because of the high degree of secrecy surrounding the deals. (Here, one can argue that Russia also sells defence equipment to China and Pakistan. However, Russia takes care not to sell those weapons that can be used against India.)

Can’t India do without Israeli weapons? The answer depends on how you want to see it.

India got its three Phalcon Awacs from Israel for a total of $1.1 billion. For the next two, Israel is demanding $1.3 billion, which India is reluctant to pay. Recently, New Delhi cancelled a $500 million deal with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems for the Spike man-portable anti-tank guided missiles and opted for an indigenous version of the same from the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which is still under development. Rafael’s reluctance to share the technology in line with the provisions of India’s “Make in India” initiative made New Delhi cancel the order. Ironically, in 2012, India chose the Spike over Javelin, made by America’s Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, because of Washington’s unwillingness to part with its technology.

India’s penchant to rush for foreign arms rather than a push for indigenous manufacturing has been driven mostly by corruption. This has been a major reason for its dependence on countries like Israel. (India has blacklisted even Israeli defence companies due to corruption.) Thankfully, the attitude seems to be changing under the current government.

A few joint military drills do not mean that the ties between two countries are strategic in nature. India holds joint military drills with even China. Also, strategic defence relationship between two countries cannot be a one-sided affair. Israel’s defence cooperation with countries like China and Pakistan is not in India’s interest. Apart from this, the US has a significant veto over Israeli technology transfers. Tel Aviv transfers only those military technologies to India that the US is willing to see India have and technologies that it believes India can indigenously develop soon.

Trade

The India-Israel bilateral trade was worth about $4 billion in 2017 with India exporting around $2 billion worth of items to Israel. Although there is scope for improvement, the Israeli market is not very attractive for Indian exporters. As far as Israeli businesses are concerned, India for them remains a “focus area” on paper while in reality they focus on Europe and North America. As of today, exports to Israel account for just about 1 per cent of India’s total exports. It has been so in the past five consecutive years.

Civil technological cooperation

Israel can offer very limited technical assistance to India when it comes to agriculture and water management. Israel is not the only arid country that has been successful in growing fruits and vegetables on a large scale through technologies, like drip irrigation. Australia has been able to do so on a much larger scale. Even India has been successful to some extent in growing farm produce in arid and semi-arid regions in the country wherever and whenever it has tried seriously. India’s canal projects, especially the Indira Gandhi Canal, is a fine example of this.

It is more due to the apathy of our successive governments rather than lack of scientific knowhow that vast regions of our country remain dependent solely on monsoon rain and prone to droughts.

In India Water Week 2016, the Israeli ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, said [pdf] cooperation in water management would be the next big collaboration between Tel Aviv and New Delhi after defence and agriculture. Although there hasn’t been a single noteworthy collaboration between the two countries in the agriculture sector, the envoy still said so. Nonetheless, what kind of water-management solutions can Israel give us? Does Israel have mighty rivers like India has? What experience does it have other than desalinating, storing, and recycling sea water? Is Israel the only country on the planet to do these things or does Israel have proprietary rights over the technologies needed for these things?

The answer is “not really.”

Besides, even if the Israelis have developed some of the world’s best models for water treatment, storage, distribution, and recycling, will their model be successful in a vast country like ours? Mind you, India has many cities with populations of over 10 million, which is more than the entire population of the Jewish state. Apart from having a small population, Israel is a tiny nation as well. (It is so small that it uses, or at least used, Turkish airspace for training its fighter pilots in warplane manoeuvring.) Barring quasi-propaganda, like this one targeting an Indian audience, about the usability of its water technology, where in the world has Israel demonstrated its technology of treating, transporting, and distributing water over long distances to large populations? Nowhere.

Space cooperation

Although there is some talk of cooperation between India and Israel in the space sector, especially after Modi’s July 2017 visit to Israel, it has remained negligible so far. At this moment, there is hardly anything worthwhile to discuss.

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Now, let’s briefly look at what’s India’s stake in keeping a friendly and healthy relationship with the Arab and Gulf states.

Diaspora and remittances

There are around 7 million Indians living in the Arab-Gulf states. Indians from all over the country live and work there. More than half of India’s remittances, which is well over $60 billion yearly, come from the Middle East. This, according to some data, is almost equal to the FDI in India. (Talking about remittances, according to the last available figures, the total India-Israeli bilateral trade is worth less than the remittance to India from Pakistan!)

Trade, bilateral, and strategic ties

India’s two-way trade with the Arab-Gulf states is worth almost $100 billion. India exports a range of products – from hides to electronic goods – while it imports oil from the region.

India’s ties with these countries have traditionally been very strong. In 2016, Saudi Arabia conferred its highest civilian honour upon Modi on his first visit to the country. Symbolism apart, not only does India import oil from Saudi Arabia, New Delhi’s strong ties with Riyadh ensured that India could evacuate its trapped nationals from Yemen, which came under sudden attack from the Saudi-led coalition as their campaign against the Houthi rebels in the country began. Saudi Arabia agreed to pause the aerial bombardment for two hours every day to allow India to extract its nationals from there – a privilege extended only to India. This helped India evacuate even foreign nationals from Yemen, including many from the west.

In 2017, the United Arab Emirates offered India to keep one-third of its oil if India provides it with storage facilities. Such a strategic tie-up is unheard of between two countries.

Iran, which is a sworn enemy of both Israel and the Saudi-led Sunni Arab countries, is also an indispensable friend of India in the region. Iran serves as a strategic ally in countering the threat from Pakistan. Islamabad has allowed our rival China, with whom we have an outstanding border dispute, to build a strategic port on its soil in Gwadar, in line with Beijing’s “String of Pearls” design to encircle us.  Iran has provided us a counterbalance to have our own strategic port on its soil in Chabahar. Also, India needs Iran to extend its geopolitical reach in Afghanistan – a landlocked country of extremely high strategic importance.

Counterterrorism

The Arab-Gulf states provide us with high-value intelligence inputs in counterterrorism. It is due to India’s efforts, the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations have become virtually a bed of embers for Pakistan-based anti-India terrorist groups. UAE, which was a haven for terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim, has blocked the entry and movement of people in New Delhi’s wanted list. In 2016, it deported three Indians who were suspected to be members of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Even Saudi Arabia has changed its policy and deported terrorists wanted by New Delhi from its soil to India. This is a paradigm shift from the 1980s and 1990s when terrorists and operatives sought by India could freely hop in and out of the country allowing their Pakistani masters to deny their existence in their country.

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If there is a truly strategic relationship, it is between India and the Arab-Gulf countries. It is tangible and in action. The so-called strategic ties between India and Israel are only on paper, right-wing discourse on social media, and the useless propaganda op-eds of Tel Aviv’s mouthpieces and sponsored thinktanks. Those are mostly without any depth or substance and often full of rhetoric and bloated promises.

The relationship between Arab countries and Israel is not exactly like that of a snake and a mongoose. Rather, they are covert allies in many ways because of their common enemy Iran. However, Arab monarchies, in order to survive, must do things necessary to keep their subjects calm. Probably that’s the biggest reason they have still not given up fighting for the Palestinian cause, which is just anyway. It is a highly emotional issue for the Muslim world, including the 200 million-strong Indian Muslim population. This is also a major reason India must do everything to maintain the perception in the Muslim world that it is trusted a friend.

There would be occasional cases, like the Palestinian envoy in Pakistan sharing dais with anti-India terrorist Hafiz Saeed in Islamabad or Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issuing a statement on Kashmir, that are against India’s position. However, these cases are needed to be seen in a broader light. Most of these are symbolic, mostly for the consumption of their domestic population and for the sake of their ties with other Muslim nations. After all, the PLO is not sending Fatah gunmen into India. Neither is Iran sending Hezbollah fighters into Kashmir to wage war against India.

When the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visits India on January 14, India must accord him a similar warm welcome as Israel gave Modi during his July 2017 visit there. Israel needs India more than India needs Israel, and New Delhi must give Tel Aviv a firm handshake. However, that must not come at the expense of India’s principled stand on Palestine. A policy reversal on Palestine will not only be immoral, but may jeopardize New Delhi’s truly strategic ties with Muslim nations.

As for the rants of Tel Aviv’s Indian mouthpieces and their anti-Muslim supporters on social media, Modi must continue to ignore them in India’s interest just like he did during the Jerusalem vote at the UN.

I tweet as @goldenarcher

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