K.C. Singh | Challenge for India, world after Iran strikes at Israel

The Asian Age.  | K.C. Singh

Opinion, Columnists

Tensions between Israel and Iran reach new heights following recent military actions, raising concerns about wider conflict.

Members of the Israeli military show an Iranian ballistic missile which fell in Israel on the weekend, during a media tour at the Julis military base near the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Malachi on April 16, 2024. Iran carried out an unprecedented direct attack on Israel overnight April 13-14, using more than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, in retaliation for a deadly April 1 air strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Nearly all were intercepted, according to the Israeli army. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Tensions had been mushrooming across the entire West Asian region ever since the October 7 lethal attack by Hamas on Israeli settlements and troops around Gaza, in which they also seized several hostages, many of whom still remain in captivity. Global opinion has gradually swung behind the Palestinians after Israel’s “scorched earth” approach as it tried to wipe out Hamas. Israel showed limited concern for civilian casualties as hospitals, churches and mosques were bombed, alleging they were atop an underground labyrinth of hundreds of miles of tunnels. Hamas fighters, its leadership and hostages were supposedly in that maze.

One episode of ceasefire provided some respite to civilians, hounded from one temporary shelter to another, facing disease and starvation. US President Joe Biden, facing criticism at home for pandering to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has only partially and infrequently succeeded in coaxing Israel to moderate its brutal military campaign. In Israel, public demonstrations had reignited over the hostages not being rescued. The Israelis were being just held back from invading Rafah, the last surviving big city in Gaza.

On April 1, Israel bombed the Iranian diplomatic complex in Damascus, killing seven Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel. More significantly, among them were three senior commanders overseeing liaison with Iranian allies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus. After the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a celebrated Iranian commander of the Quds Force, by the US, this was a strategic win for Israel. But it came at the cost of riling Iran and breaching internationally recognised sanctity of diplomatic missions. The debate then shifted to how and when Iran would retaliate. There were no takers for Iran quietly absorbing the loss.

The Iranian retaliation came on the night of April 13-14, with over 300 ballistic and cruise missiles, including drones, fired at an Israeli air base in Israel’s southern desert. The Israeli anti-missile defence, called the Iron Dome, and its Air Force combined with similar defence offered by US naval vessels and aircraft took out all but seven missiles. Israel claimed that the damage was minimal, with only one Arab girl hit by shrapnel. The reaction of G-7 countries, which went into a huddle, was sharper over the Iranian retaliation than the initial Israeli provocation.

The Indian government’s positioning is interesting. The Damascus Iranian embassy bombing was not condemned, but mere distress expressed over escalating tension and breach of international norms. This was akin to India seeking observance of international humanitarian law and not vociferously condemning the merciless Israeli targeting of civilians in Gaza.

More disturbing, though hardly surprising, is India’s bilateral labour transfer agreement, finalised during last year’s India trip of Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen. In the past Israel employed nearly 80,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, and 17,000 from Gaza. After the attack on October 7, Israel plans to substitute them with workers from China, Sri Lanka and India. Bangladesh is skipped, perhaps due to the workers’ religion. From India, Israel seeks 42,000 workers for the construction industry and another 8,000 as health workers. This accord invited attention due to an Indian travel advisory about the danger now of travel to Israel, only days after dispatching the latest batch of workers. This is a typical case of contradictory policies followed by different arms of the government.

Its implications are in fact wider than simply the security of the workers. It has been obvious since the BJP-led government assumed office in 2014 that Israel has special lure for it. When Lal Krishna Advani began his foreign travel as home minister with Israel, I conveyed informally to his close friend that he needed to moderate his hawkish anti-Muslim image. A trip to Israel did not achieve that.

While Israel has had broad support across India, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi it is more than friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the current Israeli coalition government having rabidly bigoted ministers from the extreme right fringe, the Indian government appears to be unconcerned about close engagement. Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich also oversees the occupied West Bank, despite his known support for expanding settlements.

National security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, convicted in 2007 on terrorism charges, strongly advocated “free fire” authority to the security forces in dealing with Palestinians. The suspected transfer to Indian agencies of Pegasus, an invasive phone-tapping virus, underscores the malignant dimension of the India-Israel bonhomie.

Considering the eight million-plus Indian diaspora in the Arab Gulf countries, the policy of Indian labour depriving Palestinians of their jobs is myopic. The rush to show large recruitment for jobs abroad, as the Lok Sabha election approaches, hardly answers the Opposition’s charge of high unemployment. The assumption is that because the ruling families of the UAE and Saudi Arabia want to engage Israel, they will block any backlash. The six Gulf Coordination Council members met last week in Doha to approve a “Vision for Regional Security”, which accepts Israel’s legitimate place in a regional security order. But they also could not ignore the Palestinian question. Popular resentment in the GCC nations can lead to quiet scaling back of Indian recruitment by individual entities.

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has been balancing India’s relations with Iran and Israel. But the language of official statements betrays differential empathy for Israel. This will become more difficult if Israel retaliates against Iran directly. Until now, Israel has used cyber sabotage, assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, etc. But a direct attack can ratchet up tension multi-fold.

The latest Israel-Iran standoff has served Mr Netanyahu’s primary purpose of distracting attention from the Israeli killing of civilians in Gaza, especially with the Rafah operation imminent. It also reduces the pressure on him to quit and face fresh elections. The Iranian attack seemed to be carefully calibrated to minimise damage. It came with forewarnings, targeted an isolated airbase and the US played along to negate it. It is a bit like the Pakistani retaliation to Balakot in 2019 when their fighter jets hit an uninhabited part of an Indian military facility. The aim in both cases being to satisfy public opinion without causing excessive damage, thereby avoiding any counter reaction.

If so, any further conflagration may be avoided. If, however, Israel uses the opportunity to decapitate Iran’s strategic nuclear infrastructure, then the next Iranian attack would be modulated to hurt. Iran would have gauged weaknesses in the Israeli defensive system after analysing the last attack. The world is keeping its fingers crossed.