Niranjan Chichuan
This year, India and Israel are going to celebrate 25 years of diplomatic ties; yet, the two nations do not know each other enough beyond the diplomatic and defence level. This has been mainly due to the Palestine issue, Arab-Israeli conflict, Indian dependency upon Arab countries for petroleum and the economic interests of India in the region. Full-fledged diplomatic relations between India and Israel was established in 1992. Since then, both the nations have achieved huge success and strengthened their defence, economic and strategic ties with joint collaboration in many areas. Apart from defence and security ties, the two nations have also been negotiating bilateral free trade agreements on information technology, biotechnology, and agriculture. Bilateral trade between two countries has steadily grown from around $ 200 million in 1992 to approximately five billion dollars in 2016.
Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA Government came to power in May 2014, Israel has acquired greater priority in his diplomatic agenda. The visit of President Pranab Mukherjee to Israel was the first ever visit by any Indian President to the country. Visits by top leaders of the Government, mainly, Union Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and subsequent reciprocal visits by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to India and other leaders like Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon are milestones in the bilateral relations. But more importantly, the changing nature of ties is seen in the backdrop of some recent development.
First, the rejection of a parliamentary resolution moved by the Opposition in India to condemn the Gaza violence in 2014 and its unwillingness to support the United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC) resolution condemning Israel for its “war crimes” in July 2015. Second, Prime Minister Modi’s comparison of the Indian Army’s target action against launchpad across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) – surgical strikes – to Israel’s policy of targeted killing and military action. Third, in the past, Indian dignitaries had combined Israel and Palestine in a single visit. The current Government is likely to break this tradition as the serving Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expected visit to Israel is to be without a stopover in Palestine. The possible follow-up visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India can be a major shift of Indian foreign policy.
Supporters of this visit attribute it as an act of ‘realpolitik’ and the opponents argue that it’s an act of dilution of Indian long term policy of solidarity with the people of Palestine. One has to remember that India is the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974 and the statehood of Palestine in 1988. The Government has hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before Modi’s visit to Israel. The growing bilateral ties between India with Israel is not at the cost of Palestine’s interests. Therefore, it has to be seen beyond ideological and symbolic level of relations to the prevailing global threat of terrorism and impact of China-Pakistan belligerence against India.
There are a number of strategic interests for the Modi Government to seek close diplomatic ties with Israel. Ever since the emergency weapons received by India from Israeli during Kargil war in 1999, the military cooperation between the two countries has been on the rise. Israel emerged as the among the largest arms suppliers to India, next only to the US and Russia. Weapons and missiles already inducted in the Indian Armed Forces include, Phalcon AWACS, UAVs (Searcher, Heron and Harop) Aerostat and Green Pine radars, Barak missiles and anti-missile air defense systems, Avionics and several types of missiles. The Government is also keen to acquire the future technologies like stealth, unmanned systems, satellite surveillance and cyber-warfare. Negotiations are on to finalise the defence deal before Prime Minister’s visit to Israel, particularly the Spike anti-tank missiles for India’s army and Barak-8 air defence missiles for the Indian Navy. Beyond the buyer-seller relationship, cooperation is also solidified by several joint collaboration programmes over the years. Since Prime Minister Modi kick-started the Make in India project, Israel was the first country to come out openly and express its willingness to contribute to this initiative. For Israel, India is a lucrative defence market and willing to take advantage of the investment-friendly policies adopted by the Modi regime. Simultaneously, India not only needs defence products, and defence industrial base but it is also interested in getting technologies for its defence indigenisation at the later stages.
Israel and India are enhancing their cooperation on counter-terrorism measures. Both the nations recognise that terrorism is a global challenge. It is reported that India has been sending its soldiers to Israel for specialised anti-insurgency training and for use of sophisticated techniques to detect and stop cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and countering Mumbai-like attack of 2008. Cooperation in this field has been reinforced after the Pathankot and Uri attacks of 2016. The counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing between the two nations would help India to improve network-centric and electronic warfare capabilities and to deploy more anti-terror units.
Israel is the second biggest foreign supplier of military equipment to China. According to Israel’s Bureau of Statistics, Israel exported defence products to India and China worth $2.3 billion and $3.3 billion in 2015 respectively. The history of China-Pakistan nexus is a major security concern for India. In this context, India needs superior military weapons from Israel and to check the China-Pakistan strategy in the region.
Both the countries are engaged jointly in the field of space technology. In 2008, the Israeli commercial radar imaging satellite TecSAR was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). The India launched the RISAT-II spy satellite with the help of Israel in 2009. Israel Space Agency (ISA) and ISRO are jointly working, particularly in technologies related to earth observation, communication and rocket propulsion. Out of the 104 satellites recently launched by the Indian space agency on a single flight, one belonged to Israel. Cooperating in the space programme would give superiority in modern warfare.