In the face of unrelenting international pressure and criticism, Israel is keenly aware that it must seek to develop strategic alliances wherever possible in order to help maintain its very survival.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert no doubt had this harsh reality in mind in December, when, during a visit to New Delhi to announce the establishment of a joint Israel-India economic think tank, he stated, “Israel is looking for a genuine, friendly and open-hearted partnership with India.”
The partnership Olmert spoke of is a natural one. Its genesis lies in the shared vision of a more prosperous, secure future for the Israeli and Indian people. Since first establishing formal diplomatic relations in 1992, both countries have signed a number of defense, economic, and intelligence agreements in an effort to cooperatively address issues of mutual concern such as pan-Islamic extremism and terrorism, territorial sovereignty, and nuclear non-proliferation.
The improved state of Israel-India relations is most apparent in defense cooperation between the two countries. Israel has quickly become India’s second largest defense supplier behind Russia with $2 billion in sales over the past decade. Indeed, the exchange of military hardware and sophisticated battlefield technologies, cooperative ventures in the design and manufacture of military defense systems and the sharing of highly classified intelligence information are at the core of the Israel-India relationship.
In December, an Indian delegation led by Defense Secretary Ajay Vikram Singh visited Israel and met with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to and to explore areas for further cooperation between the two countries. And in early January, Israel Military Industries (IMI) signed an $11.6 million deal with India to jointly manufacture 125 mm tank shells. This, in addition to two previously announced agreements between IMI and the Indian government that would establish five chemical plants in India to develop explosives and a $30-$40 million deal to upgrade rockets for the Indian Army.
Israel and India have also agreed to hold joint air force exercises sometime in 2005 that will pit Israel’s American-made F-15 and F-16 fighters against the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Russian-made Su-30’s. In addition, Israel has agreed to upgrade the IAF’s Chita helicopters, jointly develop the Barak-II ship defense missile and upgrade the Indian Navy’s fleet of Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance planes. Separately, India is currently conducting trials of the Israeli built Lahat anti-tank missile, Crystal Maze laser-guided bombs and Pop-Eye missile.
Furthermore, Israeli Special Forces and intelligence agencies such as the Mossad (foreign operations) and AMAN (Army Intelligence Agency), which are recognized as two of the premier intelligence agencies in the world, are said to have trained Indian troops on counter-insurgency techniques.
The recent flurry of Israel-India defense agreements has angered the weapons-peddling Russians, who are eager to re-secure their Cold War position as a leading purveyor of military hardware and technology to the Middle East and Asia. To achieve this goal, the Russian government has placed intense diplomatic pressure on India, demanding that the country buy more Russian weapons and threatening to supply Muslim neighbor Pakistan with military hardware if they refuse.
On the economic front, Israel and India agreed in December to set up a joint study group to formulate a formal economic partnership plan that could potentially reach $5 billion annually by 2007. “We expect this positive trend to continue as India expands its range of goods and as its appetite for high-tech products grows,” said India’s Commerce Minister, Kamal Nath. A “Statement of Intent” that would establish the “India-Israel Industrial R&D Cooperation Initiative” to provide support for joint R&D projects has also been signed.
Recognizing a unique opportunity for increased economic cooperation, Israeli Employment Minister Ehud Olmert recently called for increased R&D efforts between the two countries to create IT products for the global marketplace, saying, “We need to find a balance between using the innovation of Israeli engineers and the proven skills in software development and implementation of Indian engineers.”
Opposing defense, economic, and intelligence cooperation between Israel and India is an array of well-entrenched Muslim hard-liners and Islamic theocrats who have called for the immediate severing of all relations between the two countries. The frequency and intensity of these virulent assaults could affect the ability of New Delhi’s government to forge a long-lasting, amenable consensus among the country’s 140 million Muslims. Making the situation more difficult is the fact that Muslim Indians, traditionally strong supporters of the Palestinian cause, view Israel as a human rights violator.
Recognizing the need to assuage the fears of its Muslin population, India has attempted to separate its Israel policy from the Arab-Israeli conflict. To achieve this, New Delhi has taken a more neutral position on the Palestinian question, publicly stating its continued support for the Palestinian cause and making deliberate efforts to further strengthen ties with its Arab neighbors, while reassuring Israel of its friendly intentions.
Adding new uncertainty to the fledgling Israel-India relationship has been India’s increased reliance on Iranian oil and gas reserves to sustain its economic growth. In early January, the state-run Gas Authority of India Limited and Indian Oil Corp. reached an agreement with the National Iranian Gas Export Corp allowing India to purchase 7.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) over a 25-year period.
Discussions to acquire and develop the Iranian Yadavaran and Juffair oil and gas fields have already taken place. The construction of a $4 billion India-Pakistan-Iran LNG pipeline and a multi-billion joint Indian-Iranian LNG tanker project have also been proposed. Any expanded energy alliance between Iran and India would be a legitimate concern, as Israel and the U.S. try to isolate a nuclear-infatuated Iran.
Increased Israel-India bilateral cooperation raises important questions concerning the impending strength and depth of the relationship. For example, how will India maintain an effective balance between its growing energy dependence on Iran and defense relationship with Israel? Also, if a regional crisis were to erupt in the Middle East involving Iran, Israel and the United States, how would India respond? And how will nuclear-capable neighbor Pakistan, already a vocal opponent of Israel-India relations, react if bilateral, defense cooperation accelerates?
Muslim countries such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan view normalized relations between Israel and India with disdain -- an increasingly difficult concept to embrace. In turn, U.S. intermediacy as a facilitator in the Israel-Indian relationship is seen as “hegemonic meddling” for the purpose of world domination. The reason for this untenable position is clear: regional anti-democratic forces are fully cognizant that any high-profile U.S. presence on the Asian sub continent, or increased presence in the Middle East, could lead to the rapid evolution of a formidable, Pro-Western U.S.-Israel-India alliance. This nuclear triad would immediately challenge the nascent, geo-political aspirations of China, Iran and Russia.
Both Israel and India should carefully formulate a long-term, comprehensive strategy in a regional and global context to respond to inevitable criticism and resistance to any alliance.
For its part, the U.S. should actively support the Israel-India alliance and encourage their mutual desire to explore continued opportunities for improved synergies. In its role as the world’s leading democracy, the U.S. has a responsibility to make itself readily available to assist in the resolution of any difficulties that may arise from the new relationship. Strategic bonds between Tel Aviv, New Delhi and Washington should also be explored, with an emphasis on fluidity and informality, not rigidity—such a convergence of democratic beliefs and interests should continue to be a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy.