Benjamin Netanyahu in India: Gap between strategic progress and rousing rhetoric is massive

It is hard to miss the camaraderie between Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu as both leaders seek to take bilateral relationship to “new heights”. However, as the Israel prime minister returns Modi’s visit amid a blaze of hype and high symbolism, it must be asked why even after 25 years of diplomatic ties between the two nations, the leaders need to bank on personal chemistry and mutual affinity to build a strategic partnership.

In Modi’s own words at the joint press briefing following Monday’s delegation-level talks: “Prime Minister Netanyahu and I promised each other and our people to build a strategic partnership: of hope and trust and progress of diverse and cutting-edge cooperation, and of joint endeavours and shared successes Such a promise flows as much from the natural affinity and friendship that have linked us for centuries as it does from the compelling win-win case for engagement in almost all spheres.”

So the question is, why isn’t a strategic partnership already in place between two nations that enjoy ancient civilisational ties and deep, broad-based alignment of interests?

 Benjamin Netanyahu in India: Gap between strategic progress and rousing rhetoric is massive

Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyuhu in Delhi. Twitter/@narendramodi

An honest appraisal of the answer gives us a microcosm of the issues that continue to plague India’s rise: the need for virtue-signalling in foreign policy, pandering to vote-bank politics, failure to recalibrate policymaking to changing geopolitical realities, bureaucratic red tape, systemic lacuna, structural deficiencies and lack of political will. Right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, successive Indian governments have banked on Israel for security needs but have treated the ties as an ‘affair’, not a relationship.

Right from 1962 when Nehru sought help in the forms of arms and ammunitions from his Israel counterpart Ben Gurion during the 1962 war against China, Indira Gandhi’s request in 1971 for artillery assistance to Israel’s supply of laser-guided missiles during the Kargil conflict, Israel has been rock solid in its backing of India during our times of need, expecting and receiving little in return.

By becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, Modi adequately demonstrated political will. He has taken forward the Atal Bihari Vajpayee legacy in ensuring that bilateral ties are de-closeted and flaunted as an open embrace. The jury is still out though on whether he will be able to move beyond symbolisms and ensure that the relationship is divorced of its transactional trappings and developed into a strategic partnership.

Despite his display of political will, eagerness in changing the trajectory of bilateral ties and attempts at diversifying the areas of cooperation between two nations, Modi is still hemmed in by institutional constraints. Two recent developments reveal the extent of his challenge.

One, notwithstanding the non-stop chatter about a pro-Israel tilt in India’s foreign policy, India voted against Israel in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution rejecting US move to formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The BJP government’s arrival at the Centre in 2014 with a thumping mandate had raised expectations that India’s foreign policy would finally be exorcised of its Nehruvian moorings of preachy idealism and reset in alignment with India’s security and economic interests. A closer strategic embrace of Israel was expected, and it was hoped that such a reorientation would manifest itself in a revised voting pattern at the UN.

After all, the realities that governed India’s repeated voting at the UN against Israel no longer exist. This isn’t a bipolar Cold War world where Arab nations will use oil as a geopolitical weapon against India. It is foolish to fear that Indian expatriates will be forced to return home in droves if New Delhi votes in favour of Israel. It is staggering to think that our foreign policy is guided by such paranoia.

The more likely explanation is that Modi government, like its predecessors, commits the same mistake of conflating voting at UN with domestic compulsions – a perverted belief that going against Palestine might enrage the Muslim population and worsen the situation at Kashmir. This ‘principled’ approach is counterproductive and does little to improve our bilateral ties no matter how much praise Modi and Bibi lavish on each other.

As Dhirenn Nair from the University of Nottingham has noted in The Diplomat, “Given the connection made between the recognition of Israel and the settlement of the Kashmir dispute, India’s pro-Arab policy was not solely the product of staunch anti-colonialism. It was in fact a carefully devised policy of appeasement; a pragmatic undertaking that was influenced by internal factors such as India’s large Muslim population, the Kashmir issue and also external factors such as Arab support at the UN.”

The second development relates to our defence (in)capabilities and how it has been taken hostage by an agenda that is unsupported by reality. India inked a $500 million anti-tank missile deal with Israel during Modi’s visit, and then, not surprisingly cancelled the deal owing to pressure from the domestic lobby.

The DRDO claimed that it could deliver such a missile (even better ones) at a cheaper cost and since such a claim aligned beautifully with Modi’s Make in India initiative, the deal with Israel was unceremoniously scrapped. Except that it wasn’t.
General Bipin Rawat, the army chief, was quoted in the media as saying that since the DRDO missiles won’t be ready before 2022, this could hit India's operational capabilities in the interim and therefore it made better sense to get the Israeli missiles to “meet the gap”.

As critics have pointed out, we have no expertise in integrating Israeli sub-systems to our Soviet-era military hardware. Modi government wants to reverse India’s status from world’s biggest arms importer to an arms manufacturer but the PM’s ambition has been curtailed by structural capabilities.

As Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies has noted in Business Standard, “The naval MF-STAR radar and long range Barak missile which India paid for and was meant to co-develop are manufactured wholly in Israel, India having failed miserably in its development share... Even where technology has been transferred as in the case of gallium arsenide chips for radars, Indian AWACS radars have abysmal performance since India’s atrocious engineering ‘talent pool’ cannot develop the matching signal processing algorithms.”

Therefore, we must temper our expectations from Netanyahu’s visit. Unless the structural impediments are cleared and cobwebs of the mind done away with, the relationship will continue to be characterised with high optics and little content. Terms such as “soaring heights” or “revolutionary leader” are a poor substitute for on ground progress in firming up of strategic ties.

Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 06:49:43 IST