India’s budding relationship with Israel has now blossomed under the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India forged diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, 42 years after recognizing it as a country.
During these 4 decades, India was chained by its commitment to the non-aligned movement, its vast Muslim population’s sentiment, its sympathy to the Palestinian cause to gain Arab support, and its dependence on the Arab states for oil imports and USSR for arms sales.
2 critical factors veered India’s administration into bridging the gap between the two countries in 1992. Firstly, USSR’s disintegration had left India without a benevolent great power and a huge arms sales partner. Secondly, impressed with Israel’s grit to foster a military-industrial complex from scratch, India ached to be self-reliant in its defense sector as well.
However, there were other motives too. India’s economic liberalization in 1991, its’ failure to acquire Arab support for the Kashmiri cause, Israel’s military support to India in the conflicts with Pakistan and China in the 60s, and Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan revealed that diplomatic relations with Israel were no longer a high-risk endeavor.
The end of The Cold War led to India significantly diversifying its suppliers, giving way to the Western nations and Israel.
Israel has often been termed as a ’no-questions-asked-supplier’, transferring its most advanced technology without placing any restrictions. It was one of the few countries to not condemn the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. Instead, Israel steadily increased its arms sales to India even though it faced sanctions and isolation from the international community. Both nations also did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with each supporting the other’s decision.
Even in the Kargil War of 1999, Israel assisted India with weapons, significant upgrades to the IAF’s aircrafts and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) surveillance systems.
Israel accounted for a massive 76% of India’s arms exports from 2009 to 2013.
Essentially, the normalizing of relations in 1992 brought India’s much-anticipated goal of military modernization and Israel’s aim of commercializing its defense industries into reality – transforming the relationship into a strategic partnership.
The advent of Modi and the enhancement of the military relationship
Since the establishment of Narender Modi in 2014, India-Israel relations have only continued to bloom. The total trade value between the two in 1992 stood at a mere $200 million. In 2018, the total trade was valued at a colossal $5.84 billion; Israeli arms sales being the cornerstone of this relationship.
India – shackled by constraints in its’ defense production including lack of technical expertise and manufacturing infrastructure, complex bureaucracy, inadequate funding, and project delays – saw Israel’s share in its’ arms market shoot up after 2014.
Between only May and November 2014, just as PM Modi was sworn in, Israel exported $662 million worth of Israeli weapons and defense equipment. This value exceeds the total Israeli exports to India during the previous 3 years combined. The 2 countries also signed an intelligence-sharing agreement in the same year.
Originally proposed in 2012, the Indian administration approved the purchase of 10 armored Heron TP drones from Israel after receiving the required political backing in 2015.
In 2017, India participated in the first-ever joint military exercise with Israel marking a new era in the Indo-Israel military relations.
Although Israel is not a major exporter of heavy weaponry, it is one of the best in producing the technology and ammunition of such systems. For instance, the SPICE-2000 bomb, produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (RADS), was equipped in the Mirage-2000 fighter aircraft that performed the Balakot airstrikes in February 2019. Moreover, the Indian military installed an Israeli-developed comprehensive integrated border management system (CIBMS) along its border with Pakistan in August 2017.
Israel’s ability to create its niche in the ‘Make-in-India’ oriented defense sector proved beneficial for both sides.
In March 2016, India’s firm Reliance Defense and Israeli firm RADS signed an agreement to collaborate in producing various missile defense systems and surveillance balloons for the Indian military. In April 2017, Israel Aerospace Industries finalized a $2 billion deal with India’s army and navy to provide them with advanced air defense systems, making it Israel’s largest-ever defense deal. India was also its largest arms customer in 2017.
Narender Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017, signifying healthy relations between the two. India and Israel also signed an MoU on Israel’s renowned cybersecurity during the state visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to New Delhi in 2018.
In April 2020, India sent a 5-ton shipment of medical supplies to assist Israel in the fight against COVID-19. And as Indo-China relations worsen, New Delhi seeks warmer relations with Tel-Aviv by announcing plans to increase their arms trade.
Kashmir, another Palestine?
In August 2019, the Indian government unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s special status waging a demographic war in the region. In the pursuit of electoral interests, BJP advocated a settler-colonial project in the most militarized region in the world – with more than 5 million Indian soldiers. Thousands of civilians and activists have been restricted to their homes, subjected to detention, torture, mass arrests, judicial apathy, and a communication blackout – same as Palestinians. As BJP, similar to the Likud party, feeds its population the rhetoric of moral superiority, crimes against humanity prevail.
This bold move can be better understood in the context of support that the BJP gets. With a similar blueprint to follow, India’s consul general, Sandeep Chakravorsky, in 2019 said,” India should adopt the ‘Israeli model’ in Kashmir.” In 2018, Mark Sofer of the Israeli Foreign Ministry is reported to have said, “I really don’t see any difference between the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hamas” – Lashkar being held responsible for terrorist activities in IOK by the Indian administration.
In 2019, India voted in favor of Israel at UN-ECOSOC to deny a Palestinian human rights organization named ‘Shahed’ the observer status, indicating a shift in India’s voting practice in the UN. The first sign of this shift was witnessed in 2015 at UNHRC when India abstained from voting on a resolution that criticized Israel for violating human rights in Gaza. This was the first time the ‘largest democracy in the world’ had ever voted against Palestinian interests. On the flip side, Israel supports India’s stance of Kashmir being its’ internal issue.
Winston Churchill’s words, “never let a good crisis go to waste” resonate deeply with India and Israel, as they continue to use the pandemic as a distraction by expanding their respective colonial-settler projects.
The right-wing political parties, Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), to which PM Modi belongs, and the Likud Party, to which PM Netanyahu belongs, share an ideological similarity with a common Muslim antipathy. They believe in an ethnoreligious link to an ancient past, which gives them supremacy over the land and other ethnic groups. For Zionists, it is the land of Israel and for Hindu nationalists, it is to purify India by containing Muslims.
The political marriage between the two right-wing nationalist leaders has brought the two nations closer than ever. Mahatma Gandhi, India’s revered leader, opposed a Jewish national home in Palestine and an ethnoreligious nation-state. PM Modi, adopting an opposite course, has ushered India into a new chapter in history by cementing a strategic partnership with Israel. Judging from the current ethos of the nations, both leaders are expected to remain in power for the near future and to continually support one another on the geopolitical stage.
This ideological affinity will not bode well for the Kashmiris, Palestinians, or human rights.
Mohammad Jamal Ahmed
The writer is a freelance columnist