Jerusalem: The India-Israel friendship has been flying very well under the radar for years, arguably to the benefit of both sides. But Israel now wants a public acknowledgement of the bond. It would like India to invite President Shimon Peres for a visit to put a seal on the relationship and take it to a higher level.
India is reluctant for reasons that have more to do with history than the present and even less the future. Israelis understand the compulsions but they feel India continues to hide behind old excuses, some of which, they feel, are no longer valid.
Both countries have worked quietly to provide what the other needs and so far this behind-the-scenes strategy has borne fruit. The gains are substantial especially in the realm of defence where Israel has provided a wide array of equipment and options to India without the difficulties that New Delhi has faced for example with the United States. The total India-Israel defence trade over the past decade is estimated to be around $10 billion, an impressive figure considering it has only been 20 years since full diplomatic relations were established. Israel has quickly risen to be India’s second largest defence supplier after Russia. The positive side of the ledger is heavy, the trust palpable and growing.
Kargil was the turning point when Israel proved its credibility by sending the much-needed ordnance and laser-guided bombs in India’s hour of need. Since then defence trade has expanded to include the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), missile systems, unmanned vehicles and counter-infiltration devices for the LOC in Jammu & Kashmir. Israel has also helped upgrade and refit some of the old Russian fighter jets. The volume of defence trade has allowed Israel to scale up production and R&D, a point Tel Aviv appreciates.
The good has got better with time. Yet, India finds it hard to publicly acknowledge leave alone celebrate the true value of the relationship because of “political sensitivities” – a cauldron into which a plethora of reasons can be thrown, some credible, some outdated and some even lazy. The big one is the “Muslim vote” which it is speculated would get alienated if India were seen as too close to Israel because of the Palestinian question. Of course, there is no hard research to support or disprove the notion but it is comfortable groupthink used by politicians and diplomats alike.
This line of reasoning assumes that Indian Muslims cannot understand the nuance and need of India’s national interest, which currently require a robust defence relationship with Israel given the tough South Asian neighbourhood and the paucity of reliable arms suppliers. It also assumes that Indian Muslims would necessarily place their country’s interests below those of the Palestinians’ whose cause, incidentally, the government of India continues to support both diplomatically and financially. As for the reaction of Arab countries – if the Palestinians have been betrayed by anyone more than the Israelis, it is the Arabs who have played games and even punished a desperate people by cutting off funding in the past.
The second reason cited for shunning public diplomacy with Israel is the ire of the Indian Left parties who will no doubt organise protests and outrage. But even they would agree that their history of identifying Indian national security interests, leave alone securing them is a chequered one. The brotherhood of the oppressed has got India zero gains in the international arena and it is time the Left focused solely on making the government deliver to the oppressed at home – a hugely worthy pursuit – and left foreign affairs to the realists.
Political sensitivities are manageable but is it the right time for Peres to visit India? Israel, no doubt, is pushing the envelope with India when it asks for a presidential visit. Ministerial visits and exchanges between service chiefs from both sides have been a regular feature. The visit of former foreign minister, SM Krishna, to Israel earlier this year – the first in nearly a decade by an external affairs minister was a “coming out” of sorts by Delhi. For Israel a logical progression would be the ceremony and pomp of a Rashtrapati Bhavan reception.
India can give the nod but it would certainly make it easier for New Delhi if Israel resuscitated the peace process and showed credible intent vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But hard line policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, give little hope. And their diplomacy on the issue has been anything but delicate. In the run up to the UN General Assembly vote last month granting Palestine the status of a “non-member state with observer status,” Israeli diplomats were openly talking of collecting a “moral majority” of western democracies of the US and Europe to block the bid. By implication, they considered non-western democracies chopped liver. The insult was noted by Indian diplomats.
Friction over the Palestinian issue will remain for the foreseeable future but as the two partners have shown a lot can still be done while agreeing to disagree.