Modi’s Israel Sojourn Right Timing, Right Step
Vol 11 Issue 3 Jul - Aug 2017
An insight into what the historic visit of PM Modi to Israel epitomises
Friday, July 21, 2017
There are diverse ways of looking at Prime Minister Modi’s just completed visit to Israel but the geopolitical angle appears to score as the most important. It was a visit in the making for the last 25 years after diplomatic relations has been established between India and Israel in 1992. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did state in his welcome speech that Israel had been awaiting a visit by an Indian PM for last 70 years. Netanyahu’s statement is symbolically correct because in heart both countries wished to establish a strong relationship for mutual benefit right at the outset of their foundation. Geopolitical circumstances obviated such a relationship. Both nations were born just a year apart; India in 1947 and Israel in 1948; both were new nations but old civilizations. The circumstances related to geopolitics in their respective regions dictated the course of their looking at each other fondly, smiling once in a while but never reaching out to shake hands.
The geopolitical compulsions of The Middle East placed Israel in confrontation with the Arab world and by default with the larger Islamic world. The endless conflict over Palestine moved from conventional war with the Arab neighbours to a perpetual state of hybrid conflict dominated by irregular and terror related operations. The larger dimension of the Cold War also adversely affected the region where the US and the Former Soviet Union attempted to garner influence through proxies. Israel was firmly embedded in the US camp while the entire Arab world was backed by the former Soviet Union. There were awkward compulsions about friends’ friends and friends’ enemies and relationships were guided by this.
Since India’s birth the geopolitical environment of South Asia also heated up and the bipolar Cold War confrontation had its manifestation here too with Pakistan in the US camp and India with the Soviets. India was a champion of non-alignment too and had many friends in the Arab world. Its large Muslim population was also a factor contributing to the Indian desire for close relations with the Arab countries. Thus, despite all the desire to have a strong mutually beneficial relationship between India and Israel the geopolitical events of the Cold War just did not allow it to happen.
Between 1989 and 1991 the world underwent a change and a new global order struggled to emerge. With a fundamental change in India’s economic policies once again the dependence on the Arab world, the Gulf in particular, increased manifold. India needed energy and a continuous flow of it, if it had to sustain its spurt in economic growth. Secondly, there was a large movement of Indian labour and managerial talent into the Gulf; the strength of that today is almost eight million. Progressively its remittances have increased over time contributing almost 35 billion dollars to India’s foreign exchange reserves.
As India stepped gingerly out of the Cold War compulsions its defence needs also went up. Pakistan had already triggered a proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir and just a few years before that Indian troops had a long standoff with the Chinese in Arunachal’s Kameng division. The Russian defence industry was on a temporary melt down and relations with the US were just beginning to warm up in which arms and technology were not something which would emerge without the run of a warm up. Israel was a good bet but the stifling shackles of geopolitics still prevented a full blown relationship.
In 1992 diplomatic relations were established and some confidence took place on the back of shared threats. It took some years before a Defence Attaché was posted to Tel Aviv. From 1992 to 2017, it took 25 long years for the relationship to reach a level of warmth where the Israeli PM put his Indian counterpart on the protocol level of the US or Russian Presidents and personally received him at Ben Gurion airport.
The one question which arises is why PM Narendra Modi had to wait three years to make this happen. The promise of a strong relationship was made at New York when he and PM Netanyahu displayed the warmest of personal bonding. Again, geopolitical compulsions and pragmatism were the major factors. Mr Modi faced the same shackles as his predecessors. Therefore, his diplomacy commenced by a strong outreach to the major Arab countries whose political clout and economic strength could have far reaching influence in Arab politics; Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar (temporarily pariah in the gulf). He arranged for President Pranab Mukerjee to visit Israel, Palestine and Jordan. It created the base on which he launched his visit to only Israel, effectively de-hyphenating the relationship. What also came to his aid is the vastly strengthened relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel due to the common enmity with Iran. It is this element of the relationship which is not supported by India’s perceived interests because a relationship with Iran is strategically crucial for India.
India has four principal interests in West Asia. First is energy security with dependence on a few Gulf nations. Next is defence technology and direct arms purchases. Third is the security of the eight million strong diaspora all over the region and its continuation. Last is connectivity through Iran and other interest areas with it. With the preparatory run up to the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel and the visit itself three of the four interests appear to have been met. There has been no adverse comment within the Arab world which is keeping with the realpolitik of the times. The fourth issue, connectivity through Iran remains a void and is unlikely to progress unless some drastic initiative is taken which will assuage feelings of the US, Israel and even Saudi Arabia.
An issue of interest which could be considered and debated in the future is the viability of India acting as the conduit for some improvement in the relationship between Israel and Iran. With the moderate faction in power in Tehran and the Iran Nuclear Deal still in place, is this possible? For Netanyahu and Trump, the Iran Nuclear deal was a disaster which gave Iran the space to continue its nuclear program. Trump has even threatened to undo the deal. The US stance in the Arab Sunni Islamic summit in May 2017 during the visit of President Trump was robustly against Iran. With this prevailing perception in the US and Israel it would be premature for India to even consider acting as conduit of goodwill. However, in any future diplomacy which looks at bringing a rapprochement between Israel and Iran, India must look to be an important player. While seeking such opportunities care must be taken to keep a balance relating to Saudi Arabia and the remaining GCC countries.
The geopolitical factors create the conditions for cooperation and strong enduring relationships but it is the specific agreements and the aspects of cooperation which progressively cement that relationship. Israel has been a supporter of India for long and without any linkage to any conditions. It is known, although not very authoritatively, that the then Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan visited New Delhi in 1977 to discuss Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program. The first vistas of cooperation even as diplomatic relations were being established, were in the field of intelligence. It was also the beginning of the proxy war in J&K an aspect which was needling India’s security perceptions just as they continue to do so today.
During the visit of Prime Minister Modi not much has been written about the trigger which enhanced the trust and led the relationship on to the rails of becoming transformational. It was Kargil 1999. The Indian Army was entirely capable of evicting the aggression of Pakistan at the heights overlooking the Srinagar-Leh road but there was a need for some high technology ammunition which the Israelis more than willingly flew in. Laser guided munitions for the Indian Air Force’s Mirages for precision shooting against the Pakistani mountain top defences had been in short supply and the Israeli assistance was more than welcome. After the Kargil conflict the post operations analyses all pointed towards the poor surveillance capability that the Indian forces possessed in terms of border management. It gave a long-needed push towards acquisition of state of the art all weather surveillance systems. Acquisitions were fast tracked. Heron and Searcher UAVs, Hand Held Thermal Imagers (HHTIs) and a variety of sensors to detect intrusion made their way into the Army, all purchased from Israel which quickly ratcheted up its production to meet Indian requirements in a faster time frame. The Air Force decided to go in for the Phalcon AWACS. The Navy concerned about its poor anti-missile defence (AMD) capability initiated the process for the acquisition of the nine variants of the Barak AMD and missile system. The induction has been progressive with Barak 8 now under induction.
It is important to understand the significance of the above acquisitions under duress and how this enhanced trust between the two countries. The streamlining of the conversion of this trust into a more enduring transformative relationship has been astutely done without undue pressure for hurry. A few years ago, I visited Israel as part of an international study team. The warmth exuded towards me, as an Indian was particularly noticeable. The visit helped me appreciate even further Israel’s defence industry especially in the field of robotics, surveillance systems and drones. I also noted the degree of attention paid towards research and development (R&D). No doubt that the technological culture of the US has come to assist Israel in no mean way yet there is no denying that the adaptation to its needs has also been done brilliantly by Israel. I interacted with the R&D, design and implementation communities and noted the extremely short time between expression of a need and the fielding of the prototype. The Lebanese border where a war had just been fought with the Hezbollah provides the right setting for fielding the surveillance equipment and streamlining the command and control systems. I visited a surveillance command post and observed the response time for execution in the event of detection of intrusion or any unfriendly actions. The wall along the West Bank built as an anti-infiltration system is reminiscent of our Anti Infiltration Obstacle System (AIOS) in J&K except that it is over far more friendly terrain. The concept of converting the AIOS to an actual system and not just a physical obstacle was adapted from the surveillance systems of Israel. Now that India is looking for further enhancement of border management capability through advance surveillance systems there seems to be no better source of inspiration and the necessary material tailored to our needs, as required.
India’s fascination for Israeli technology and weapon systems is also based upon the ease of doing business. Complicated protocols which need legislative approval in the US system do not figure here. The players who are the points of contact are concentrated in a small area and R&D is state of the art. Besides there is far less resistance to co-produce and allow the export of technology for eventual manufacture. That is the philosophy which led Mr Netanyahu to make the most important remark that Israel would look forward to ‘Make with India’ as an adjunct to ‘Make in India’ for the mutual benefit of both countries.
Israel and India both have unique experiences in dealing with their foes in the conventional, irregular and hybrid domains. However, the quantum of institutional exchange of knowledge and experience has yet been peripheral. This needs to increase with mutual attachment of officers and detachments of troops and more joint exercises in different domains. There is perhaps no set of Special Forces better at intervention operations than the Israelis but the Indian experience is not little either. Here is a domain for total cooperation.
Defence deals are always contributory towards trust but technology in other fields also plays a big role. Israel’s agricultural progress has been based on its limited usage of water and huge success gained in greening the desert. Indian states such as Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have been serious in acquiring and executing projects on the use of drip irrigation technology which has help retain water in regions which are water scarce.
The signing of the 41 million US $ bilateral technology innovation fund is a measure which will help bring together Indian and Israeli innovations. Both countries have a strong base for software development which can be taken to a higher level under joint development programs. Interestingly, industrial development, establishment of a strategic partnership in water and agriculture to focus on water conservation, waste-water treatment and its reuse for agriculture and desalination, all form a part of this initiative. India and Israel also signed cooperation pacts between their respective space agencies in areas including atomic clocks and electric propulsion for small satellites.
The detail in terms of the agreements is not as important as the establishment of understanding, trust and creation of a system for continuity in exchanges. Education exchange programs, tourism, better facilities for direct travel and more people to people contact in the cultural and social domains will help greatly in finally converting a relationship which has waited long to from the transactional to the transformational domain. The visit by Prime Minister Modi to Israel has achieved this in no small way and a return visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu will no doubt take this to the next level.