Mission Israel: India’s new strategy evolving

Columnist  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

Modi is not necessarily shunning a relationship with Palestine but rather giving it a status separated from Israel.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu prior to a meeting in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo: AP)

The optics from the scenes at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion international airport on Tuesday evening — the bearhugs, gestures and words — all displayed the final arrival of a strategic partnership in the making for past many years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had been waiting for this moment, of a visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel, for the last 70 years; it finally happened and that too symbolically on the anniversary of Israel’s famous intervention at Entebbe airport in 1976 in which Mr Netanyahu lost his older brother. This visit needs to be viewed beyond the emotions voiced, for its true worth lies in an increasingly dangerous world in which India and Israel find themselves, with many common threats.

Driving into Israel from Jordan over the famous King Hussein Bridge some years back, what struck me were the vast plantations in the Jordan Valley, all brought to life through drip irrigation, the agro-technology which Israel mastered and which enabled water-deficient countries to make use of arid lands.

I start with this observation because mention Israel and everyone jumps to only issues related to military technology. The latter will find much mention here too, but it’s the ability to innovate for survival in diverse fields and take those innovations ahead that has been the major strength of the Israeli state, from which India needs to learn.

While understanding that this is one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most important foreign visits, it is also relevant to understand what prevented the development of the relationship to this level in the last 25 years, even after full diplomatic ties were established under P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1992.

The beginning was shackled by the legacy of Cold War ideas and relationships, although the desire for closer defence, economic and people-to people-ties existed for almost 70 years. What held India back even after 1992 were compulsions of the management of our ties with the Arab and Islamic world. As a nation with a large Muslim population, the handling of ties with the Islamic world was important. India was extremely concerned due to its ongoing friction with Pakistan, which could have exploited any relationship seen as inimical to the interests of the large comity of Arab nations and turned them against India.

Also, given India’s huge dependence on the Arab world for its energy needs, New Delhi could ill afford to not maintain strong political ties with them.

Mr Modi’s foreign policy involved three years of managing, cultivating and strategising for this big event; it could not have been possible otherwise. Sensitive to the presence of the eight million-strong Indian diaspora in the Gulf region and given all the implications on India’s energy security and trade relations, the PM first tied up the ends, visited key Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Iran, and received their delegations. He thus ensured that a substantive move towards Israel would not come in the way of relationships in a fast-changing strategic environment of the Middle East. The relationship with Israel could not be taken to the next level with the shadow of the Arab world looming in the background and any mention of Israel could not be simply hyphenated with the long-standing problems of the Palestinians. Nations ultimately seek their interest independent of their concern for other nations, although this need not substantially change the way they do business with those nations.

By not visiting Ramallah in the West Bank, Mr Modi is not necessarily shunning a relationship with Palestine but rather giving it a status separated from Israel. In many ways, that should work positively for the Palestinian Authority too.

While there are many issues on the visit’s agenda, the dominant part of the relationship remains defence and security. Talks will be held on agriculture, water and disaster management, startups, university adoption, student exchange programmes and technical education, but there is no denying that the domain which drives Israel’s virtual existence is security. Mr Netanyahu’s call for taking “Make in India” to “Make with India” is an extremely relevant one as no other technically-advanced nation will share technology with India the way Israel does. Fully aware of the limitations of its own markets, Israel will definitely seek to enhance its share of 7.9 per cent of the Indian arms and equipment market to something much higher. With India, it gets to partner a nation both with a security environment with almost similar threats and one which is hungry for technology.

Leading the pack in military equipment is the recent agreement for the Indian purchase of 10 Heron advanced armed drones at a cost of almost $450 million. Capable of substantially changing the offensive capability across the Line of Control in a “no war, no peace” environment, the drones can undertake surgical strikes much deeper in adversary territory than can be executed by Special Forces on foot. The other equipment keenly awaited is the Barak-8 surface-to-air missile system to boost Indian air defence systems that have been largely deficient in capability. In cyber security, intelligence acquisition and intervention in counter-terror operations, there is no match to Israeli expertise. The Spike anti-tank guided missile launchers and missiles for Indian infantry units will be a boon in view of the repeated failure in the development of the Nag anti-tank missile.

My last major takeaway from this domain is the creation of an electronic wall for border management. With India’s intent to substantially upgrade its border management systems, the Israeli deployment and response system along the Lebanese border is one of the best models to look at.

There will be many nations across the world who will be watching with keen interest the emergence of India’s de-hyphenated foreign policy in the making, and it is a good thing that such a display of complete strategic independence will be a part of Indian policy for the future.