‘The sky is the limit” is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during their meeting on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York during September 2014. The meeting between the two leaders came after 11 years. The Israeli premier even invited Modi to visit his country. Will Modi make history by becoming the first Indian PM to visit the Jewish state? Bilateral relations between the two countries, today, are going in a direction expected by many ever since the 2014 Indian general election results were declared.
The overwhelming victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), defeating the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that governed the country for years, has been watched with immense interest for various reasons from different corners, both within India and abroad. In this respect, the diminutive State of Israel has received significant attention. Media agencies, academic and diplomatic fraternities and the strategic community have expressed varied opinions about how the relations between the two countries would evolve under this newly-installed government in New Delhi. Expectedly, apart from commercial, scientific, technological and agricultural cooperation, it is the military ties that have witnessed significant enhancement since May 2014. This is very unsurprising given the nature of military-security cooperation between the two countries for several years already.
Ever since the Modi government came to power, a few important developments have already taken place vis-à-vis Indo-Israeli defense cooperation. The first breakthrough, in terms of arms imports from Israel, was the announcement India would procure the Barak-1 missile, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. This was a significant step, particularly considering the depleted defensive capabilities of Indian warships.
With delivery scheduled for December 2015, 14 ships that presently lack missile systems will be outfitted with the Barak-1.
A little more than a decade ago, India-Israel defense cooperation had been plagued by allegations of bribery pertaining to this missile system. After strenuous efforts, it was only in December 2013 that an investigation carried out by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was closed with the admission that there was no evidence against the accused.
In September 2014, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which Modi chairs, gave the final nod for the acquisition of 262 missiles. This came much to the relief of 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 defense systems. New Delhi’s announcement of the procurement, at a whopping cost of $144 million, came at an opportune juncture. The clearance given to this stalled missile deal itself is an indication of India’s preference for Israeli-made missile defense systems, and Israel has secured a comfortable space while supplying such military items to this South Asian country.
In quick succession, during late October 2014, after prolonged delay, at a meeting of India’s Defense Acquisition Council India finally decided to buy 8,356 Israeli- made Spike ATGMs and 321 launchers at the cost of $525m.
The unresolved issue with the US on technology transfer has led to India’s decision to purchase these sophisticated missiles from Israel.
The deal had been stuck since 2010. Through the Spike missile deal, India has sent a strong message to other potential arms suppliers that are eyeing the lucrative Indian defense market. The message is that India not only wants finished products, but is also interested in getting technologies for its defense indigenization programs.
This is because the present Indian government under the Prime Minister Modi is promoting its “Make in India” policy, and defense production falls well within the scope of this initiative.
From now on, it appears that India’s arms purchases or tenders will come along with the requirement for technology transfer, and Israel is no exception. Israel, as a result, should make efforts to capitalize on this opportunity provided by India. During the recent visit to Israel of Indian Home Minister Rajath Singh a strong pitch was made for Israeli industries “to take advantage of the investment- friendly policies adopted by the new government” in New Delhi.
Adding more vigor to Modi’s project, Netanyahu expressed his country’s readiness and willingness “to discuss transfer and development of technologies with India.” He further added that, “Israeli industries, including the defense industries, could ‘make in India,’ and thereby reduce costs of manufacturing products and systems developed by Israel.”
This positive outlook from the Israeli leader is likely to pave a way for a robust cooperation between the defense industries of both countries. Further, it will be helpful in India’s quest for its own technological advancement in the defense industry. But a resounding success would depend on how far both the countries could carry forward their projects or cooperation without delays, with transparency, and most importantly, without kickbacks.
Apart from the defense trade, Israel and India are enhancing their cooperation on counterterrorism measures. Given the emerging trend of various terrorist activities both in the Middle East and India, this dimension is definitely going to see significant cooperation. India is likely to gain from Israeli expertise in counterterrorism measures, along with surveillance skills at the borders (both land and sea). Moreover, the increasing radicalization of a few Israeli Arabs and Indian Muslim youths under the influence of Islamic State (IS) is a common challenge faced by both the countries and this will drive their cooperation to new levels.
These issues were discussed thoroughly during the visit of Israel’s national security advisor Joseph Cohen to India in October 2014.
Additionally, the Indian prime minister, during his meeting with 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.” Both governments are known for their intolerance to terrorism and this becomes the right incentive for further cooperation in military-security affairs.
Coming to an ongoing phenomenon, cybersecurity is another potential area of cooperation. It is in this direction that the Israeli prime minister, during their New York-meeting, invited Modi to be a part of his project of a national cyberdefense authority. The project’s main motive is to create a link between the civilian and military authorities in both the countries. This is a very timely invitation to India from Israel as the former is striving to establish a strong cybersecurity defense systems.
Several concerned Indian establishments have begun efforts on setting a cybersecurity framework.
Engagements in this field look very promising.
While the reinvigoration of ties is very visible, one cannot ignore the challenges that are likely to appear. The Modi-led BJP government faced the first heat from the opposition parties when Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Sawaraj refused to discuss a resolution in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) on the recently- concluded Gaza crisis. Under intense domestic pressure, India had to vote against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council. India’s posture on the mentioned crisis has once again brought back to the limelight how increasingly difficult a diplomatic tightrope it has to walk while maintaining a delicate balance between Israeli friendship and the Palestinian cause.
And, as happened in the past, India’s left-wing parties such as Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) once again pressured the government to halt India’s purchase of arms from Israel.
From this, it is clear that India-Israel arms trade is the most important target for various left-wingers and social activists in the country.
Lastly, the huge Muslim population in India will continue to keep a close watch on the Indian government’s dealings with Israel.
Emergence of opposition and pressures on Modi to scale down ties with Israel cannot be ruled out. Modi, at the same time, is trying to improve his image among the Muslim citizens of the country.
Under such circumstances, it is yet to be seen how successfully the Indian government under his leadership will maneuver its policies toward Israel while simultaneously tackling these challenges.
The author is an Indian doctoral researcher in New Delhi, and also served as a Fellow at the BESA Center of Bar-Ilan University, 2010-2011.