India and Israel: Balancing New Strategic Partnerships and Old Friendships

For nearly forty years, we secretly collaborated with Israel, principally on weapons programmes without ever publicly acknowledging the partnership. The Israelis however have grown weary of this tiptoeing and want to go official, with all-out strategic embrace, including military exercises.


India and Israel: Balancing New Strategic Partnerships and Old Friendships

The two days between July 4 to July 6 marked a new chapter in India’s modern diplomacy when PM Narendra Modi broke the 25-year ‘moratorium’ and visited the Jewish state of Israel. A strategic heft to the substantially established military relation – which is in part secret and in part open – is now on the cards.

Many may assume this might alter our equations and dynamics with old alliances in the region, and further have a bearing on our border tussles with our neighbours. The fears involve our relationship with Iran to be soured – which has found itself facing a never-imagined Israel-Saudi block – and in effect threaten Chabahar, subsequently weakening our position against the Pakistan-China axis. However experts are not worried.

They claim India can still maintain a relationship with both (Israel and Iran) without hurting the other, pulling off that tricky balancing act. “Both countries have shown exceptional maturity in India’s relationship with each one of them, especially Iran,” said Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal.

“Our relationship with Iran is very strong and old and I think we will be able to maintain that despite a strategic turn in our relationship with Israel,” Sahni adds. The fact that Iran has never so far protested against any of India’s military deals with Israel, lends weight to his statement. The only time the Iranians got jittery was when India launched Israel’s TecSAR satellite in the legendary PSLV rocket in 2008. Iran feared it would be used to spy on them.

In a nutshell, with the new gang up against Iran by Israel and Saudi Arabia, would we disturb our deep ties with the Shia country and in turn jeopardize our answer to Pakistan’s Gwadar in Iran’s Chabahar? Would we risk Iranian ports that our only gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia?

For nearly forty years, we secretly collaborated with Israel, principally on weapons programmes without ever publicly acknowledging the partnership. The Israelis however have grown weary of this tiptoeing and want to go official, with all-out strategic embrace, including military exercises.

Will we hurt Iran in the bargain? Would it change our (highly respected principled) position on Palestine? The new alliances in West Asia have a lot of bearing on India’s own goals and aspirations. But understanding all of that warrants a cursory look at the new geopolitical matrix in West Asia.

Israel and Saudi Vs Iran. How come?

Since 2006, and especially since the Arab Springs of 2011, Israel and the Saudis have been de facto allies in what is called the Crescent Wars – a concerted counterforce against the Shia Crescent of Iran, Syria and Yemen and to some extent, Iraq. Iraq because of the 2/3rd of its population (60-65%) and the current government being Shia.

The sectarian strife also explains Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against the Shia Houthi rebels and calling off diplomatic ties with the Qatari government for its “reconciliatory line” on Iran. But underneath the sectarian division is also a fight for the region’s most important resource – oil.

A vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are under its oppressed Shia minority settlements in the Eastern Province, making the Saudi royal family paranoid of a Shiite secession and taking the oil with them.

The fear of Saudi Shias joining Iran (or Iraq) has even grown after the US installed the pro-Shiite government in Iraq after toppling Saddam’s minority Sunni regime. The same tension also explains why the Saudis helped a Shia-majority Sunni-ruled Bahrain crush its version of an Arab Spring in 2011.

And the Israelis hates Iran for its support to the powerful Shia dominant insurgent group that control’s the Gaza Strip – the Hezbollah. According to Israel’s former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon in the July 9 edition of The Week magazine, Hezbollah was the bigger threat. “We don’t have any fight with the Sunni camp. Hamas hasn’t fired a single shot in three years. But we (the Sunnis and the Jews) have common enemies like Iran,” he was quoted in the magazine.

Such is the Israeli hate for the Shias Israeli diplomats had clearly in the past expressed their preference over Al-Qaeda and ISIS over Al-Assad. Fighters from the Al-Nusra Front – the Syrian offshoot of the Al-Qaeda – were even found to be medically treated by the Israeli Defence Forces soldiers in the Israeli-occupied region of Golan Heights. The insurgents were then sent back into Syria to fight against the Assad regime. This was exposed by a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report in 2015.

The clandestine cooperation also has a military dimension. The Saudis allowing the IsAF to practice its manoeuvres is now an open secret. “Israel is such a small country that it cannot conduct air exercises on its own. Turkey used to allow but then it stopped. Thus Saudi allowed them their airspace,” said Mohan Guruswamy of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

India-Israel Secret Relationship

On September 17, 1950, India became the first non-Arab country to recognize the formation of Israel, and supported the resettlement of the ravaged Jews. But the Nehruvian position was also clear about the non-expulsion of the native Arabs, and thus an opposition to the Two-Nation Theory – after having experienced the horrors of religious partition itself. This also explained why India voted against the creation of Israel on 1947. Nehruvian ethos also dictated India’s vote in favour of the resolution in the UN which debated whether Zionism was racism.

After recognizing Israel, we allowed the new Jewish nation to have a consulate in 1953, which was set up in Mumbai’s Peddar Road area. Fear of alienating the Muslim population forced the government of 1977 to turn down Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan’s request to have full diplomatic ties. However the secret military relation began when Indira Gandhi sent her R&AW spies to train with Mossad and almost executed a plan where Israeli Air Force jets would bomb the Pakistani nuclear facility at Kahuta.

This set the stage for a series of initially discreet military deals that first began with Israel helping us with high-powered satellite imagery to help the Indian Army locate Pakistani artillery guns on Kargil. Israeli bomb-guidance kits and targeting pods were also installed on Mirage-2000 fighters that destroyed Pakistani positions in Op Vijay. The same period also saw the sale of Barak-1 missile system, of which India bought around 250 pieces.

Then came the $1 billion deal for the Phalcon Airborne Warning System that was fitted on a Russian Il-76 transport plane. Then in 2005, India received the Heron drones that are used by Indian Navy’s Naval Air Squadrons, one which is based at Porbandar. It has now offered India it’s Heron-TP drones for $400 million that can shoot down missiles mid-air.

The two countries are also working on a new MR/LR-SAM project, the Barak-8 being jointly developed with the DRDO. It has been fired from warships like the INS Kolkata and Kochi and will be installed on the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.

Israel has kept making inroads into the Indian defence market. The sale of 3,400 Tavor assault rifles for Rs. 190 crore for the Indian Army’s Special Forces, the Spike ATGM that will be delivered for Rs. 3,200 crore, expected deliveries of the Spyder MR-SAM for Rs. 1,600 crore and around 200 Galil sniper rifles are cases in point. Around a decade ago, India also received the Swordfish radar that forms the backbone of our long range surveillance.

But what is peculiar about Israeli defence technology is their thrust on smaller critical components and not full-fledged platforms like jets, warships and tanks. For instance, India’s ageing fleet of Mig-21 jets have been upgraded with Israeli avionics and electronics. The lethal Kolkata-class vessels, the first in the country to sport a 3D multifunction radar, is the Israeli-origin MF-STAR system.

Probably the most state-of-the-art and secret system whose purchase and execution was not known until a government press release in February this year was the Integrated Underwater Harbour Defence and Surveillance System (IUHDSS) by Israel’s Elta. It was cleared by the UPA in 2005, is installed around the Western Naval Command in Mumbai.

Israel now accounts for nearly 7% of India’s military imports between 2005 and 2014, becoming India’s third largest defence suppler (after Russia and the US). Conversely, India is now Israel’s largest military customer, accounting for over 40% of Israel’s defence exports. In return, we launch Israeli satellites because of India’s massive advancements in space technology.

But the Israelis now want to come out with the relationship in the open, after having resented enough over the Indian need-based arrangement. It reflected in Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon’s statement when he remarked Indo-Israeli relations were being “held under a carpet” in October 2015, before President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the country. “For many years our relationship was held under the carpet. Now they are open and visible,” pointing to India’s history of secretly seeking help and collaborating with the country.

Israeli diplomats resented this “mistress-like” treatment, expressing in private how they wanted India to publicly acknowledge the relationship. “They are happy to engage in private but hide the relationship from the public with their life,” said an official from Israel’s embassy to this correspondent during the Defence Expo at Goa in 2016.

Expert Speak

Analysts, while welcoming the diplomatic high with Israel, do recognize Iran’s importance but are confident of Indian diplomats walking the high-wire of not losing the precious alliance with the Shias. They point to a peculiarity in India’s diplomatic practice where its alliances are need or issue specific.

Sameer Patil of Gateway House (Indian Council on Global Relations) said, “Our foreign policy should not be country specific but issue specific. Despite that we have been careful in balancing Iran and Israel. Diplomats and policy makers are obviously brainstorming on how not to take it to an extent of hurting Iran. We might lose Chabahar otherwise.”

Bharat Karnad of the Centre for Policy Research seconds him, agreeing that India needs Iran for Chabahar, but adding that Indian policy makers “would be careful enough of not displeasing Iran.” “Their supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khameini recently said that Kashmiri Muslims should resist oppressors was a wielded threat to India about Israel. We obviously will not abandon Iran,” he adds.

Ajay Sahni explains that collaborating with anyone does not amount to giving up on ideological stances, as even a strategic partnership has room for criticism. “We have an issue based relationship with countries which doesn’t mean that we completely join one block and throw in our lot with that camp.

There are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends in statecraft and diplomacy. Can you imagine Saudi Arabia now cooperating, albeit secretly, with Israel? We can develop a strategic relationship with a country and at the same time oppose it or disagree with it on certain issues.”

Sameer also points towards to that secret ‘wiggle room’ that has allowed countries to concede on certain matters, against their established positions. “For instance, despite Saudi Arabia being the origin of Wahhabi and Salafi radicalism, might still help us in locating a mosque or the funding that has been involved in radicalization,” Sameer said.

He has a point. Saudi intelligence has cooperated with Mossad in the past. Many also forget that the kingdom’s sleuths handed over dreaded Indian Mujahideen terrorist Abu Jundal after Indian agencies proved his identity through a DNA report.

Probably the most alarmist opinion on the diplomatic enhancement was expressed by Mohan Guruswamy of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. “It is a friendship based on need. Not on joint shared values. Israel with also sell to Pakistan in the future. Moreover the RSS and the BJP eulogize how Israel fights its Muslim neighbours,” he said.

All this talk has not figured in China, Israel’s largest trading partner and also India’s, but currently locked in a military standoff with our army in the far north-east. Bilateral trade between the two (Israel and China) stands at $11 billion, more than double Israel’s trade with India. So it is not only India, but even other countries who play the game of bonding with two rivals, with each one of the latter also in similar arrangements with other countries, forming an endless chain of seemingly treacherous alliances.

Netanyahu called the relationship with India a “marriage made in heaven,” during PM Modi’s visit. So this is the second divine nuptial for the Israeli PM, since he made the same expression in Beijing in May.

Email: satamp@gmail.com

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