After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hectic three-nation tour, including his half-a-day visit to the Netherlands, his first three-day visit to Israel has generated speculations on expected lines. In Israel, Modi will address over 4,000 Jews of Indian origin and meet Moshe Holtzberg, a survivor of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The two sides will sign three agreements on space cooperation, launch a joint strategic partnership on agriculture and water, open a new Indian cultural centre in Israel and, launch a joint CEOs forum. But the big elephant in the room— their expanding defence cooperation—seems missing from both sides.
Though sympathetic to the cause of Jews, India’s founding fathers including Mahatma Gandhi had denounced proposals for creation of a Jewish state in Palestinian territories. This was viewed through the prism of India’s own experience with partition and the birth of the Islamic State of Pakistan. Since then India and Israel have witnessed a real piecemeal cultivation from both sides resulting in India accepting legitimacy of the Israeli state in 1950, setting up their consulate in Mumbai in 1953 to extending full diplomatic recognition in 1992. This slow pace is often explained by citing India’s historical and cultural connections with the Arab nations and also India’s domestic Left and Muslim constituencies resulting in India’s enduring commitment to the cause of Palestinian liberation and its leadership. So, in spite of their expanding defence cooperation since early 1990s, India-Israel interactions have remained least publicised, let alone celebrated.
In this backdrop, the ongoing visit by Modi can be seen to formally herald the completion of this slow-motion U-turn from opposing the creation of Jewish state of Israel to declaring it as India’s most preferred partner for addressing the formidable threat of Islamic terrorism. As regards Tel Aviv, they have repeatedly announced how they see no difference between Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and Hamas groups operating in Palestine and inside Israel. While both have also been evolving strategies for fighting Islamic terrorism, being sensitive to India’s links with Arab regimes, Israel has often said that they seek no reciprocity from New Delhi. But Modi is surely making a gesture by not visiting the Palestinian National Authority’s office in Ramallah and staying put all three days in Tel Aviv. At the same time, however, New Delhi continues to camouflage its defence cooperation with Israel by front-loading agricultural cooperation as their flagship project defining Indo-Israeli bonhomie. The hallmark of the visit therefore will be their signing of a strategic partnership of a unique kind: Focussing on various non-security sectors including agriculture, water, space and science and technology.
The facts however tell a different story. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2012-2016, India has been Israel’s top destination for its arms exports India has bought over 41 per cent of Israel’s arms exports. During the same period, Israel emerged as India’s third largest source of defence imports after the United States and Russia, accounting respectively for 7, 14 and 68 per cent of India’s total defence imports. Such an upswing has allowed for carefully cultivated myths about Nehru having asked for Israel’s help in India’s 1962 war with China or India having helped Israel in its Six-Day War in 1967.
Their real defence cooperation begins from the Kargil War of 1999 when Israeli supply of artillery shells and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) helped India overcome its critical shortages at such a short notice. India later purchased Israeli Barak 1 air-defence systems to intercept Pakistan’s US made Harpoon missiles. The last major deal by the Manmohan Singh government was the purchase of 176 UAVs that included 108 Searcher Mark II and 68 Heron armed UAVs. The UPA government had also signed with Israel an Agreement on Cooperation on Homeland and Public Security in February 2014. This was part of India’s growing bonhomie with the US resulting in closer relations with all its friends and allies.
These UPA trends and trajectories were to continue under the Modi government which saw Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting Israel in November 2014 and hosting the first meeting of India-Israel Joint Steering Committee on Homeland Security. Last September, India conducted successful tests on a jointly developed surface-to-air missile for Indian Navy’s guided missile destroyers. As part of celebrating 25 years of India-Israel diplomatic ties, three destroyer ships of the Indian Navy have already paid friendly port visits to Israel. In April, India signed a $2 billion deal with Israel for purchase of these missiles and in May, India also tested Israel’s Spyder quick reaction surface-to-air missile meant for intercepting and neutralising incoming missiles or drones from across the Pakistan border. And now the two are beginning to focus on countering terrorism which could witness some new initiatives.
No doubt India and Israel have close agricultural cooperation. Currently running their third action plan for 2015-2018, they have created 15 centres of excellence where Indian farmers have become major beneficiaries of Israeli agri-business practices and technologies especially producing hi-productivity, disease resistant crops with micro-irrigation for arid regions of Haryana and Maharashtra. The last decade has also seen several high level visits from both sides. Bilateral trade however has faced difficulties. It shrunk from $6.1 billion for 2012-2013 to $5.6 billion for 2014-2015. India remains the most preferred destination for Israeli tourists with Indian business travellers and tourists to Israel also increasing. This may increase Israel’s visibility in India creating new constituencies for stronger partnership.
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi