In the Modi era, India-Israel relations exist in two planes. The first is the normal one of friendly relations between two states who have had normal diplomatic relations since 1992 and, from India’s point of view, have a strategic dimension based on Israel’s capacities in the area of technology.
The second is visible through the prism of BJP/RSS’s adulation for the Jewish state because of its achievement in not only recovering the purity of its ancient civilisation in the face of alleged Islamic hostility, but vigorously defending it with its military might thereafter.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in New Delhi this week in return for Modi’s 2017 visit, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister. It will be another occasion to see how these two planes intersect.
Bonhomie Between Modi and ‘Bibi’
We are likely to see enhanced movement in a range of areas such as military-technical trade and cooperation, agriculture, water technology, renewable energy, healthcare and cyber security. At the same time, no doubt, there will also be gestures by the government to signal its special feelings for Israel.
Modi’s July 2017 visit was an event in itself. He pointedly avoided visiting Ramallah, the capital of Palestine in the same tour, and paid homage at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. There was easy informality between Netanyahu and him as they strolled on the beach. Modi addressed his Israeli counterpart by his nickname “Bibi”, and there were numerous trademark ‘Modi hugs’.
Early enough Netanyahu, not the most popular man in the world, sensed the opportunity that Modi and the BJP’s uncritical admiration provided his country. He was the first to congratulate Modi on his election as Prime Minister in 2014. Subsequently, high level exchanges between the two countries intensified with mutual visits of their respective Presidents and ministers, Modi’s Israel-visit in 2017 and now Netanyahu’s visit to India.
Ties with Israel Since the 1950s
India has had important and pragmatic ties with Israel since the 1950s. In the 1970s, the Israelis reportedly gave a leg-up to India’s nuclear weapons programme through the important RAW and Mossad relationship. In the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Israeli experts advised India on setting up VIP security.
In the 1990s, Israel became a means through which technologies, which the US denied to us, could come through. This became important for Tel Aviv after the US embargoed certain kinds of technologies to China.
The direct benefit was India’s AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) which has been built with Israeli electronics on a Russian airframe. Israel also gave a boost to the Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme by agreeing to supply its Green Pine radar.
Israeli assistance during the Kargil War of 1999 has helped shape the relationship of today, which sees Israeli Searcher and Heron drones, Barak surface-to-air missiles, and AWACS aircraft in the Indian armoury.
In addition, Israel provided unspecified sensor technology for India’s border fence on the Line of Control with Pakistan. Perhaps the most ambitious project currently underway is $2 billion medium and long range surface-to-air missile system, jointly developed by several Israeli companies and the DRDO. Equally important in the mid-2000s, it provided India with RISAT-2, its first radar imaging satellite.
India Offers Economic Opportunity But Security Dimension is Different
The positive trajectory of relations between the two countries had been set well before Modi and Netanyahu became Prime Ministers. Even so, having a government of a party which has an almost fawning attitude towards Israel is a big plus, especially since that country is a respected member of the Non Aligned Movement. Equally important is the opportunity that an economically flourishing India provides for Israeli companies.
Of course, India stands to benefit a great deal from Israel, whether it is in the area of technology, or in creating an eco-system that encourages technology development, whether it is for the civilian sector or the military. But we should not overstate the security dimension.
The security scenarios of the two countries could not be more different. Israel cannot afford any major military or terrorist setback on its territory, whereas India can absorb a lot. Many Indians, especially those close to the BJP, admire Israel’s tough military posture which involves periodic cross-border strikes against its enemies. Israel can carry out those strikes because it has total air superiority against its non-state actor adversaries. Unlike Israel, our terrorists are backed by a nuclear weapons state.
Limits of Indian-Israeli Convergence
But is Israel safer, despite its repeated invasions and attacks in Gaza and Lebanon? Where India has managed to successfully eliminate Khalistani terrorism and contain its Islamist variety, successive Israeli military operations have ended up with its enemies becoming more dangerous.
Israel’s problem is not Islamist extremism per se, but a people whose land it is militarily occupying. Israel sees no contradiction in achieving Jewish nationality in Palestine by depriving the Muslim and Christian Palestinians of their nationhood. This may have a resonance with some Hindutva forces, who would not mind marginalising and dis-empowering Muslim citizens of the country, but is not acceptable to the world.
This was evident in the recent UN resolution criticising the US decision to name Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and calling for an end to its military occupation of Palestinian territories. India’s support for the resolution indicated the limits to the Indian-Israeli convergence. This is but natural – the two countries do not have an identity of interests. Israel may be a nuclear power, but its real influence lies through its ties with the US.
India Has to Tread Carefully
A larger part of India is also friendly to the US, but it has a more complex regional agenda, which involves a difficult US friend, Pakistan, and balancing relations between Tel Aviv, Teheran and Riyadh. Trump can do the sword dance in Riyadh and recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but India has to step carefully in a region where it has vital interests. And hence Modi’s return to the region, probably next month, to visit UAE, Palestine and Jordan.
There is little doubt that in terms of its economic achievements and military power, Israel flies high in its region.
But the real existential challenge is in making a soft landing. Either it agrees to the two-state solution mooted by most countries, or it becomes travesty of a democracy which keeps millions of people in captivity, a prospect guaranteed to generate perpetual insecurity.
This commentary originally appeared in thequint