External Affairs

Modi Embraces Israel: Camaraderie in Turbulent Times

There is little doubt that Modi and Netanyahu bonded warmly during the visit. But, the relationship remains firmly anchored in defence supplies and a few joint ventures, with limited transfer of technology to India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they deliver joint statements during an exchange of co-operation agreements ceremony in Jerusalem July 5, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they deliver joint statements during an exchange of co-operation agreements ceremony in Jerusalem, July 5, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen

Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel was always going to be an important part of his diplomatic engagement as prime minister. Hence, not surprisingly, Modi’s sojourn in Israel from July 4-6 has seen writers struggling with epithets: “historic” has been most commonly used, followed by “ground-breaking,” “historic partnership” and “momentous”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a fit of extraordinary exuberance, spoke of the bilateral relationship as a “marriage made in heaven”. It may be noted that Netanyahu is not a great wordsmith – during a visit to China in March this year, he had similarly described Sino-Israeli ties as “a marriage made in heaven”.

This was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel and marked the silver jubilee of the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. It was also the first time that an Indian leader went to Israel without visiting Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. This affirmed the bilateral character of the visit and that India’s ties with Israel were important in themselves and need not be linked any longer with the Palestine issue – the latter had already been addressed separately with the visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to India in May.

Though Modi’s visit to Israel is the first visit by an Indian prime minister, several high-level interactions have taken place in recent years. These include visits by then home minister L.K. Advani in 2000, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2008, home minister Rajnath Singh in 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee in 2015 and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in 2016. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to India in 2003, while defence minister Moshe Yaalon was in India in February 2015.

Several observers have noted the ideological affinity between the BJP-led government in India and the right-wing leadership in Israel. Modi had been to Israel earlier as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2006, at a time when several western countries were uneasy about his presence after the post-Godhra riots. This interaction had cemented ideological and economic ties, with considerable Israeli investments in Gujarat. Commentators have spoken of a “romance” between Israel and Modi.

Contrary to expectations, as prime minister, Modi gave priority to engagement with the Muslim countries of West Asia, covering the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar in the first part of his diplomatic forays in the region. Now, with the visit to Israel his interaction with West Asia is complete.

Curtain-raisers to the visit

While the visits to the Muslim countries were an initial getting-to-know experience with new countries and leaders, the ideological connection and the earlier personal interaction imparted a special resonance to the visit to Israel. Even before Modi landed in Tel Aviv, both countries had made a major effort to create the best possible atmosphere.

A week earlier, India abstained on a vote in the UN Human Rights Commission that sought to condemn Israel for its harsh assault on Gaza in 2014, in which nearly 3000 Palestinians were killed in actions that were described as war crimes by an inquiry commission. In return, an Israeli spokesman declared full solidarity with India in the face of cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan, and added for good measure that Israel would not seek a quid pro quo for this fulsome support. In fact, the Israeli official saw a clear parallel between the challenges from terrorism faced by the two countries and asserted that both had the right to defend themselves.

Both countries shared the horror of the carnage wreaked by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in Mumbai in November 2008. This is poignantly personified by Israeli national Moshe Holtzberg whose parents were killed in the attack on the Jewish centre in Mumbai nine years ago. Modi had a warm encounter with the now 11-year old Moshe in Israel.

Curtain-raisers in the Indian and Israeli media before Modi’s arrival applauded the remarkable progress in bilateral ties since diplomatic ties were established 25 years ago. Defence cooperation has been the centre-piece of the relationship: Indian purchases of defence equipment and systems over the last ten years are valued at about $10 billion. India is Israel’s number one market for defence supplies, accounting for 41% of Israel’s exports, while Israel is India’s number three supplier, after Russia and the US, and has a share of over 7% in India’s imports.

Background briefings highlighted Israel’s prowess in defence technology, particularly its Delilah cruise missile, assault rifle, anti-missile systems, drones and interception software, seeing in defence cooperation the cement that bound the two countries. Israeli media reported that likely deals to be concluded during the Indian prime minister’s visit could include the purchase of 8,000 Spike anti-tank missiles, worth about $500 million, from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, making 2017 a record year in terms of Israeli weapons sales to India.

Last year, India had signed two large deals with Israel: one, worth almost $2 billion, includes the land-based version of the Barak 8 air defence system, as well as the naval version to be installed on the Indian navy’s aircraft carrier. The second deal, worth $630 million, was for the installation of the modified Barak 8 systems on four navy ships, which had been developed as a joint project between India and Israel. Other areas of cooperation include joint air exercises and protection of coastal and offshore facilities.

According to press reports, both countries put in considerable preparatory work to obtain substantial tangible achievements. From India, seven visits of officials from different departments took place, while eleven Israeli ministries worked to prepare a roadmap of joint economic undertakings. Before Modi’s arrival, the Israeli cabinet approved a 23-page document with several bilateral initiatives and a budget of about $80 million.

Officials in both countries have insisted that bilateral interactions were much more diversified, and covered agriculture, trade and water management. An Indo-Israel agriculture action plan for 2015-18 is already operational, and 15 of the proposed 26 centres of excellence in agriculture are being developed in India with Israel’s help to make the latest technology available to Indian farmers.

The visit

In the event, the visit fully lived up to the hype generated on both sides earlier. Netanyahu greeted Modi at the airport in Hindi, while Modi reciprocated in Hebrew. The two leaders then cemented personal ties with smiles, laughs and at least seven bear hugs. Netanyahu described his encounter with Modi as a union of hearts and minds and, in a dramatic flourish, said, “India and Israel are changing our world and may be changing parts of the world”. Modi responded by referring to “a new chapter in our ties” and “new horizons of engagement”.

Regarding defence cooperation, the joint statement was relatively muted – it highlighted Israel’s commitment to be part of India’s Make in India initiative. It referred to cooperation in high technology, trade and investments, and affirmed a “strategic partnership in water and agriculture,” reflecting the confidential nature of defence agreements and emphasising that the relationship went beyond defence to other important areas. The visit also yielded agreements in areas of satellite technology, water and agriculture, and the setting up of a $40 million innovation fund.

In public remarks, the two leaders spoke of what brought them together. Modi noted that both countries lived in “complex geographies,” replete with “strategic threats to regional peace and security”; this highlighted the need “to protect our strategic interests and cooperate to combat growing radicalisation and terrorism”. Netanyahu described the Mumbai attacks as a “horrible terrorist attack” and stressed the need for the two countries to cooperate closely in counter-terrorism.

Reality checks

There is little doubt that Modi and Netanyahu bonded warmly during the visit, perhaps even as “kindred spirits,” as some observers saw it. But, the relationship remains firmly anchored in defence supplies and a few joint ventures, with limited transfer of technology to India. Joint exercises of the three services arms will be useful and dialogue on strategy and tactics will be a valuable exchange of experiences.

But it is important to note that Israel still meets only 7% of India’s defence imports, with Russia providing between 60-70%. The defence relationship with Israel is at best transactional in character, meeting gaps in niche areas in terms of India’s requirements.

Beyond this, India and Israel have little in common in terms of perceptions, priorities, approaches and ends.

Israel continues to see itself as beleaguered in West Asia and has shaped a unique relationship with various parts of the US establishment that provides it full support for its uncompromising and aggressive approach in regional matters, particularly in addressing the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Israel does everything possible to avoid looking at the Palestinian issue – it is creating new realities on the ground through a robust expansion of settlements in the occupied territories and repeatedly discrediting Palestinian interlocutors and undermining the influence of even moderate Palestinian leaders.

And, then, periodically it resorts to fierce and cruel armed action against the Palestinian and other Arab neighbours, inflicting horrific death and destruction that some of its own citizens have seen as war crimes. Israel asserts that it is threatened by terror – but, in West Asia it is seen as the principal source of state-sponsored terrorist violence. Israeli violence in West Asia and its obdurate approach in the region have played a major role giving credibility and following to extremist movements in the region.

Israeli affinity to Pakistan

India’s experience with extremist violence has been very different. India has been afflicted by state-sponsored jihadi violence organised by Pakistan through state resources and militant groups organised, indoctrinated, armed and trained by its armed personnel. Thus, from the Indian perspective, Israel and Pakistan, in their respective regions are state-sponsors of terrorist violence, one espousing Zionist extremism, the other promoting its Islamic version, jihad.

This affinity between Israel and Pakistan emerges from the founding of these two states under British sponsorship. In his book Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, the distinguished scholar Faisal Devji saw a parallel between the Zionist movement for Israel and the Muslim nationalist movement for Pakistan. Both movements sought to mobilise widely dispersed “minority” communities against perceived persecution from the majority, and placed before this “religious’ nationality” the vision of a homeland in an “alien geography, without a necessary reference to shared blood and a rootedness in the soil”, which had till then constituted the bases of nationalism in Europe.

Originating in the same idea, Israel and Pakistan continue to share many attributes – both subordinate the idea of territory to religious identity, though Israel has come to attach a messianic value to its “sacred,” “promised” land (whose boundaries remain undefined), while Pakistan is convinced that its nationhood would not be complete without the acquisition of Kashmir (not fully defined, but vaguely referring to the valley).

Both promote national consolidation on the fear of eradication by hostile neighbours and larger global conspiracies. Pakistan’s malaise, like that of Israel, lies in the fact that religion has overwhelmed citizenship, making both nations narrow and exclusive and prone to messianic intolerance and violence against the “Other”. It is good to recall that India, with its secular and pluralistic order, has nothing in common with Pakistan or, for that matter, with Israel, and there is little that Israel can do to boost our resources or capabilities in our struggle against extremism.

India’s problem with agitations in Jammu and Kashmir is also qualitatively different from the Israeli situation. The state of Israel was set up in territory that already had Arab residents for over two thousand years, after the Jews had been expelled into the diaspora by the Romans. The new state consolidated itself through military success in 1948 and later held its own in 1967.

It now has a few million Palestinians in the territories occupied by it, who enjoy no legal status as citizens or constitutionally-guaranteed human rights. Instead, they suffer discrimination and are frequently at the receiving end of violence, both from state agencies and the settler community that is illegally occupying their land and expanding its space with full state support.

India, on the other hand, saw Jammu and Kashmir legally accede to India, with the full support of its people, who are now its citizens and enjoy all legal rights bestowed by the national constitution. Yes, there are expressions of dissatisfaction from the local people with various aspects of local governance and the role of central authorities, but these are domestic issues involving the state and its citizens and are to be addressed within the framework of India’s laws and constitution.

Thus, in Jammu and Kashmir local dissidence has no parallel with the situation in Israel’s occupied territories; nor can the Indian state see its own citizens as the “Other” and follow Israel in inflicting the harshest possible violence upon them. India’s priority concern is to address the genuine grievances of its people and bring them back into the mainstream, while that of Israel is to make living conditions in the occupied territories so onerous that the Palestinians leave their homes and join their refugee brethren in neighbouring states. There is just no similarity between the two situations that could create the basis for any serious cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism.

A new vision for West Asia

Amidst the ongoing contentions and conflicts in West Asia, particularly the strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the kingdom and Israel have located a common interest in working together against a common enemy, Iran.

The engagement between these unlikely comrades began with the US-initiated negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue and have become stronger on account the support their anti-Iran posture enjoys from the Trump presidency. Israel has now publicly affiliated itself with the Saudi-led “Sunni” alliance, which has the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain as its principal members. Thus, Israel has extended full support to Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with Qatar.

Saudi Arabia has been careful to keep its interaction with Israel out of the public eye, projecting its engagements with Israel as academic exercises. However, given the hostility of public opinion to any progress in ties with Israel, the kingdom has emphasised the importance of pursuing the Arab Peace Initiative, first announced by then Crown Prince Abdullah in 2002 and then accepted as an “Arab” plan by the Arab League. This calls upon Israel to pursue the peace process with the Palestinians so that they have a viable sovereign state, the so-called “two-state solution”. In return, the Arab states will have normal diplomatic, political and economic ties with Israel.

This plan has been rejected by successive Israeli governments, though Israeli politicians out of office have seen some merit in it. With Trump in the White House, Israel is now seeking to put pressure upon the Saudi-led Sunni states to normalise ties with Israel, after which it will take up peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Nobody seriously believes that, with “normal” ties with some major Arab countries, Israel will have any incentive to pursue the peace process.

Hence, India should not see these developments as reflecting significant, even tectonic, changes in the regional strategic landscape. Its ties with the principal countries of the region – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel – should continue to remain bilateral and based on mutual interests. This is what was signalled and put in place after Modi visited three Arab countries and Iran early in his tenure; there is no call to join any grouping, particularly one that purportedly brings together Sunnis and Zionists against the Shia.

West Asia, in turmoil, is throwing up several new alignments that are responses to ongoing competitions. Israeli-Saudi Arabia engagement is one of them. But it has a unique significance – by reaching out to selected Arab neighbours, Israel seems to have finally recognised that it is an integral part of the West Asian geography and that its interests should not depend on the vagaries of US presidential predilections but on serious political engagement with nations in its neighbourhood. That alone will give it long-term security and yield substantial economic benefits.

India’s message to the contending nations of West Asia should be to emphasise the merits of engagement and camaraderie. With solid ties with all the West Asian countries, India’s voice will be heard with respect.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.