It is not only surprising but also shocking that some of India’s opposition leaders have protested against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in July as an exercise in vote-bank politics.
They are perhaps not aware that in the wake of the India-China war in 1962, Israel had helped the Indian army with the most needed 81 mm, 120 mm and 160 mm mortars and Pack Howitzer Artillery Guns, with ammunition. India reciprocated this good gesture by sending spares for Israeli Mystere and Ouragon aircraft and AMX-13 tanks in 1967.
India and Israel forged a close military and security relationship during the 1999 Kargil war with Tel Aviv supplying top-of-the-line Searcher Mark II unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance of the Pakistani intrusion area in Drass, Kakser and Batalik sectors.
Later, Israeli companies armed Indian multi-role fighters like Mirage-2000 with Lightning pods to illuminate the Pakistani targets for laser-guided bomb attacks.
It also provided Barack surface-to-air missiles to protect the Indian aircraft carrier, Viraat.
The relationship deepened after Israel quietly landed three C-130 J Hercules load of much needed ammunition and missiles in the first week of June 2002 as India was all set to answer for the 14 May 2002 massacre of 10 women and 8 children at Kaluchak army camp in Jammu by Pakistani terrorists.
The defence arms and sophisticated equipment used to be supplied by Israel covertly, but after the election of the Modi Government in 2014, the supplies are provided overtly. While welcoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tel Aviv, his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, said his country had awaited the visit for “seventy years”.
Since the birth of Israel in 1947, whose admission to the UN India had opposed, Israeli leaders had always sought full diplomatic ties. Once the Narasimha Rao government established full ties in 1992, Israel pushed for full acknowledgement of bilateral relations on the international stage.
As a result, the significance of Modi’s visit to Israel, as the first Indian Prime Minister there, was of great historical importance.
However, the best friendships are judged not just by bilateral bonhomie, but also by the ability to discuss uncomfortable issues. With Modi’s visit India has, for all purposes, de-hyphenated its ties with Israel and Palestine, something Israel has always cherished.
That is why Modi made a point not to visit the Occupied Territories. India’s position on the establishment of the State of Israel was affected by many factors, including India’s own Partition, and its relationship with other nations.
Mahatma Gandhi believed the Jews had a good case and a prior claim for Israel, but opposed the creation of Israel on religious terms. India voted against the partitioning of Palestine plan of 1947 and also against Israel’s admission to the United Nations in 1949.
The Hindu nationalist leader, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, had supported the creation of Israel on both moral and political grounds, and condemned India’s vote at the UN against Israel.
RSS leader Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar admired Jewish nationalism and believed Palestine was the natural territory of the Jewish people, essential to their aspiration for nationhood. On 17 September 1950, India officially recognised the State of Israel. Delhi’s opposition to official diplomatic relations with Israel stemmed from both domestic and foreign considerations.
Domestically, politicians in India feared losing the Muslim vote if relations were normalised with Israel. Additionally, India did not want to jeopardise the large number of its citizens working in Arab States of the Persian Gulf, who were helping India maintain its foreignexchange reserves and also for safeguarding the flow of oil from the Arab world.
At the height of the tension between Israel and Hamas in July 2014, India offered a rhetorical condemnation holding both sides responsible for stoking violence and asked Israel to stop “disproportionate use of force” in Gaza, which was read by many as a departure from the tradition of more vocal supports for the Palestinian cause. However, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj insisted “there is absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine”. When the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report, alleging that Israel had committed war crimes was tabled for vote, India abstained from voting, one of five countries to do so. As of 2014, India is the third-largest Asian trade partner of Israel, and tenth-largest trade partner overall.
In 2014, bilateral trade, excluding military sales, stood at $4.52 billion, which is likely to be enhanced to $20 billion in the next five years. India and Israel enjoy an extensive economic, military, and strategic relationship.
India is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment and Israel is the second-largest defence supplier to India after Russia and one among the third largest defence suppliers to India (USA, Russia are the other two.) From 1999 to 2009, the military business between the two nations was worth around $9 billion.
Military and strategic ties between the two nations extend to intelligencesharing on terrorist groups and joint military training.
Defence remained a key factor in the India-Israeli relationship. Israeli companies, led by government-owned aerospace giant Israel Aircraft Industries, have signed arms deals with India totalling over $2.6 billion earlier this year. Israel has offered to sell India its armed UAV) Eitan or Heron TP (Drones) in order to enhance its standoff strike as well as long-range strategic strike capability.
The offer is still on the table, with South Block interested in bringing the unmanned weapon through the “Make in India” route for manufacturing in India. Developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, the Heron TP can fly at a height of 35,000 feet, has a flight endurance of up to 52 hours and carries a weapon payload.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the Department of Science and Technology and Israel’s National Technological Innovation Authority for setting up of $40 million worth India-Israel Industrial Research and Development and Technical Innovation Fund. In the water sector, two agreements were signed to enhance cooperation on water conservation and state water utility reform in India.
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources signed the agreement on National Campaign for Water Conservation in India. Modi said that Israel is among the leading nations in the field of innovation, water and agricultural technology and “these are also among my priority areas in India’s development”.
In the agriculture sector, the two countries have agreed upon India-Israel Development Cooperation ~ a three-year work programme in agriculture from 2018 to 2020. Currently, Israel has established 17 centres of excellence in India and is hoping to expand it to 25 centres in the next three years.
This is a sizeable number for Israel but a drop in a bucket in the Indian context to make the desert green. The two countries also agreed on cooperation between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Israel Space Agency (ISA) regarding cooperation in Atomic Clocks. Besides, separate MoUs were signed between ISRO and ISA for cooperation in GEO-LEO optical link, and in Electric Propulsion for small satellites.
(The writer is a retired senior professor of International Trade. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)