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India, Israel, and the Defence Taboo

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 30, 2010

    Congress Rajya Sabha MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, and CPI (M) General Secretary Prakash Karat as well as many international participants at a conference on the Palestinian issue in New Delhi have urged India to reconsider its robust defence relationship with Israel. Their reasons, according to press reports, have ranged from the contention that a strong relationship with Israel deviates from the Nehruvian foreign policy of un-stinted support to the Palestinians, to the charge that India is buying weapons that are being used against the Palestinians or buying weapons which have failed to perform to expectations. An Arab member of the Knesset who made the latter contention was probably referring to the Hezbollah missile strike on the Israeli warship INS Hanit which killed four sailors during the 2006 Lebanon war. This warship was equipped with the Barak-I anti-missile defence system but reports note that the system was not in an active mode as an attack by a surface-to-sea C-802 missile was not expected. The Barak system and the Phalcon AWACS are among the $8 billion worth of equipment that India has bought from Israel in the past decade.

    India’s defence ties with Israel went on an upswing in the aftermath of the Kargil conflict, when Israel supplied ammunition as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Israel’s ability to leverage its capabilities in such niche technology areas like UAVs and surveillance systems have enabled it to meet India’s growing defence requirements. The weapons systems that India obtained from Israel were in part procured due to lack of indigenous development efforts. India’s efforts to develop an AWACS capability, for instance, suffered a setback in 1999 when an Avro aircraft on which a similar capability was being tested crashed.

    The transfer of these high-end technologies was also enabled by the support of the United States which invests heavily in the Israeli defence industry. Similar technologies like the Phalcon AWACS were earlier denied to China on account of American pressure despite a contract being signed to that effect. Successive Israeli governments for their part have cultivated political and defence ties with rising regional powerhouses like India and Turkey assiduously. The latter relationship is however currently in the doldrums due to the Israeli military action on a Turkish ‘aid’ ship in May 2010 which resulted in the death of eight Turkish nationals.

    Israel has also been heavily involved in the modernisation of the Indian armed forces’ Soviet-era inventory, including the upgrading of over 100 MiG-21 fighter jets at a cost of over $600 million. Facing the rising sceptre of terrorism with support from across the border, India was in the market to equip its special forces with the appropriate state-of-the-art inventory like better quality rifles and night vision equipment, among others. Proven Israeli strengths in these fields as well as in providing security solutions have been utilised not just by New Delhi for the CWG 2010 but also by cities like Beijing which hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Israeli defence industry strengths and Indian requirements coupled with the necessary political will therefore allowed for the strong growth in India-Israel defence ties during the past decade.

    India’s defence needs are only set to grow. India has one of the biggest procurement budgets in the world, and is expected to purchase equipment worth over $100 billion over the next decade. As and when India’s indigenous capabilities in such areas like AWACS or UAVs develop, dependence on foreign suppliers, including Israel, can be expected to reduce. Given that the Israelis do not produce major platforms like fighter jets or submarines, their share in the Indian defence pie can be expected to fall in the face of American (or Russian or French) suppliers. Even if Indian capabilities come up to speed in areas where there are deficiencies, it is also a fact that it is not economically viable or strategically prudent to build each and every weapon system in a country’s defence inventory indigenously.

    No country is a hermetically sealed entity in contemporary world politics. In an increasingly globalised world, not just interests but threats are also shared. If India and Israel share similar interests in combating the forces of extremism and terrorism, the Mumbai carnage tellingly showed that both countries and their citizenry are also potentially facing the same threats. A country’s foreign policy should optimally be geared towards facing these threats effectively as well as maximising opportunities for cooperation.

    India’s humanitarian and political support for the Palestinian cause continues and should be further strengthened. New Delhi should continue to convey to the parties involved to hasten the process of establishment of a Palestinian state and smoothen roadblocks that exist. Cutting off defence ties with Israel will not in any way be the ‘magic’ bullet that will lead to the resolution of the intractable conflict. India has strong historical, political and cultural links with both sides of the conflict. Anyone who has walked the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Hebron or Bethlehem (as this writer has) will vouch for the enormous amount of goodwill that is expressed towards India by people representing both sides of the divide. India should aim to maximise this goodwill rather than seek to constrict cooperation with one of the sides.

    As it is, the policy of boycotts or sanctions have little purchase in eliciting changes in domestic or foreign policy behaviour of nation states, especially so in West Asia. Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein or present day Iran are pertinent examples. Both Tel Aviv and New Delhi should also aim to inform public opinion regarding their ongoing defence cooperation, rather than seek to perpetuate the ‘defence taboo’.