Upward trajectory of Indo-Israeli ties - Opinion

Netanyahu is correct that he has much to discuss with Modi, who defied conventional wisdom in Indian foreign policy by paying a first-ever prime ministerial to the Jewish state in 2017.

By VINAY KAURA
June 5, 2019 22:48
INDIAN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet last year.

INDIAN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet last year. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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‘Narendra, my friend, congratulations! What an enormous victory,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on a phone call with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, who has registered an impressive electoral victory in an almost one-sided parliamentary election held recently. Excerpts of Netanyahu’s phone call were recorded and placed on his Facebook page. He further said “I hope that we can see each other very soon, as soon as you form a government and as soon as we form a government. There is much to discuss on so many other things.”

Netanyahu is correct that he has much to discuss with Modi, who defied conventional wisdom in Indian foreign policy by paying a first-ever prime ministerial to the Jewish state in 2017. It is no secret that Modi shares a personal rapport with Netanyahu. When Netanyahu visited India in February this year, he was personally received by Modi at the airport, setting aside protocol. The visit, which was a part of his wider international outreach before the Israeli general elections in April, was also Netanyahu’s second official trip to India in a little over a year since in January 2018.
Ever since Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, Israel has acquired greater priority and visibility on India’s diplomatic radar. Modi can be credited with elevating the strategic dimension of the Indo-Israeli partnership by bringing the bilateral relationship out from under the carpet. Indo-Israeli strategic ties are at an all-time high now. During the Cold War period, India’s close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had made India suspect in Israeli eyes. However, Israeli leaders often demonstrated considerable understanding of the constraints behind India’s politico-diplomatic support for the Palestinians against the backdrop of New Delhi’s concerns over arch-rival Pakistan’s efforts to mobilize the Arab states against India on the issue of Kashmir.


Since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992, the Indo-Israeli dynamic has improved tremendously, as reflected in a significant upward trend in defense cooperation, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism. Defense cooperation – the central pillar of the relationship – has increased dramatically under the Modi government. According to the SIPRI data, during 2014-18 period, India was the topmost buyer of weapons from Israel.


INDIA’S RECENT acquisitions from Israel range from Phalcon AWACS (airborne warning and control system), Searcher, Heron and Harop UAVs to Aerostat and Green Pine radars and several types of missiles and laser-guided bombs. Israel’s state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is operationalizing a $630 million deal with India related to the supply of LRSAM (long-range surface-to-air missiles) systems to four ships in the Indian navy. In 2017, the Indian Air Force had participated for the first time in an air combat multinational exercise in Israel with six other nations – the United States, Greece, Poland, France, Germany and Italy.


Israel’s Elbit and India’s Ashok Leyland have agreed in December 2018 for mounting Elbit’s artillery guns on wheeled vehicles. India’s Adani Defense and Aerospace has also signed a contract with Elbit to construct UAVs in India, including its Hermes 900 and Hermes 450. The Indian navy recently celebrated its successful test firing of a medium-range surface-to-air missile (MRSAM), which is a ship-based version of Israel’s Barak 8 missile that India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had jointly developed with Israel Aerospace Industries.


India’s recent airstrikes into terrorist hideouts in the Pakistani town of Balakot involved not only the Israeli tactics in cross-border raids into Palestinian territory, but also the use of various weapon systems imported from Israel – precision-guided bomb called SPICE, Phalcon AWACS and drones. Modi’s electoral campaign was also dominated by continuing references to the airstrikes, which was done to underline that Modi’s India would not hesitate to strike at terrorist bases outside its borders.


A combination of factors has led to the emergence of strong diplomatic-military ties between India and Israel. The rise to power of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contributed significantly to this development. Following the 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran, India was isolated internationally and subjected to severe military sanctions. But Israel did not condemn the nuclear test and resumed defense exports to India, enhancing its credibility as a reliable arms supplier. Assistance from Israel in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan further enhanced the Indo-Israel security partnership.


The 2008, the Mumbai terrorist attacks – planned and engineered from Pakistani territory – once again exposed the evident failure of the Indian security establishment to control its borders, process actionable intelligence and counter terrorist attacks in various parts of India. The urgent need to address the grossly inadequate, fractured nature of the Indian security apparatus apparently aroused a growing interest in Israel’s counterterrorism tactics and methods.


India’s internal conflict theater covers diverse categories, including non-conventional war, low-intensity conflict, proxy war, insurgency and non-combat operations. Despite the fact that the roots and nature of the terrorism they face are different, countering jihadist terrorism is a challenge for both India and Israel. The terrorism directed against both countries is sponsored by their neighbors. India has found it useful to study Israeli approaches to cross-border terrorism, because Israel has developed remarkable technological and operational capabilities in its fight against this problem.


THE HINDU NATIONALIST BJP has been an enthusiastic supporter of a stronger security relationship between India and Israel. Its prominent leaders always express huge admiration for Israel’s counterterrorism and national security policies. Before Modi assumed leadership of the party, the BJP had laid the foundation for India’s national identity that is assertively and firmly rooted in Hindutva ideology. Thus, the governing paradigm of Netanyahu-led Israel finds great resonance in India’s political establishment, who feel that the Jewish nation-state model of ethnic democracy may be applied in India as well.


While the security partnership may not be the sole factor that binds the two countries, it is the most important, because considerations of security have always influenced India’s Israel policy. As evidenced by the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka recently, there does not seem to be much hope of reducing the jihadist ideological threat from the ISIS in the foreseeable future despite its territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. Although the Modi government has substantially expanded the scope and dimension of its counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing cooperation with Israel, the fact that India and Israel do not face the same adversary has practically limited the level of cooperation.


The Modi government has invested a huge amount of political capital in strengthening ties with Israel. “My dear friend Bibi, Congratulations! You are a great friend of India, and I look forward to continuing to work with you to take our bilateral partnership to new heights,” Modi said in a tweet last month, when it became clear that Netanyahu was headed towards a historic fifth term as Israel’s prime minister.


As Netanyahu-led Israel wants to sell India several advanced weapons – such as spy planes, unmanned aircraft, anti-tank missiles and radar systems – Modi’s commitment to build on the momentum in Indo-Israeli ties remains unsurpassed because Israel seems well placed to play a leading role in India’s constant struggle to improve its defense preparedness.


The writer is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan, India. He is also an adjunct professor on the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Germany.

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