Indo-Israeli Strategic Cooperation

M.L. Sondhi

Tribune, September 3, 2003

Just over half a century ago two ancient peoples managed to cast off the bonds of colonial rule and assert their political independence as sovereign nation-states.  At their inception, the newly born states could hardly have been more dissimilar.  The one, India, was a giant subcontinent with an enormous and impoverished indigenous population.  The other, Israel, was minuscule in size but eager to augment the sparse numbers of its domestic populace by large-scale immigration from countries as diverse as Morocco and Austria, Yemen and Canada.

Moreover, despite the fact that both opted for heavily state-controlled economies in their early years, the divergence between the two countries appeared to grow over time.  Israel, on the one hand, gradually began to adopt an orientation increasingly conducive to free trade and private enterprise.  India, on the other hand, continued to maintain its emphasis on centralised control and an aspiration for economic autarky.  On the political and diplomatic front, Israel and India were estranged for several decades, with the former unequivocally aligned with the US, while the latter opted to maintain close links with the Soviet Union.

This significant Indo-Israel disparity hardly boded well for mutual cooperation between the two nations, which remained a vision entertained only by a few far-sighted optimists.  However, since the onset of the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet bloc and the accelerating liberalisation of the Indian economy, considerably, dramatic changes have begun to take place, bringing with them a marked convergence of Indo-Israeli interests and policy goals.

The future of Indo-Israeli relationship should not be left only to the political and state institutions of the two countries.  For it would then be dependent on the prevailing vagaries or constraints of incumbent governments.  Accordingly, it should be bolstered by the more durable ties cultivated by networks of likeminded elites within civil society.  Such elites often have a view of the long-term national interest which is more far-sighted, clearer and less cluttered than those of incumbent office-bearers. They may thus be better equipped to compel politicians to engage in issues which they would otherwise be loath to, or constrained from, dealing with.  Thus, the future of Indo-Israeli relations should, in many aspects, be “privatised”, at least insofar as it relates to laying the groundwork for its long-term durability.

Israeli and Indian sea power could become a factor of increasing significance.  Israel’s long-term strategic need to strengthen its navy corresponds well with India’s desire to extend its maritime capabilities.  New Delhi appears to be placing growing emphasis on its sea-borne prowess, primarily to patrol its enormously long (8000 km) coastline.  However, there are signs of an emerging awareness of its potential as a strategic second-strike facility in the case of non-conventional attack, possibly comprising nuclear submarines and a locally built aircraft carrier.

Israeli technological expertise in areas such as electronic support systems and counter-measures, radar surveillance and sea-to-sea missiles could be fruitfully exploited by India to create a strong sea-based deterrent force that is likely to have a stabilising effect in the region.  Indeed in several of these areas there have already been reports of bilateral contacts – and in some cases contracts – for the installation of Israeli equipment in the Indian Navy, as well as for joint development of naval systems and patrol vessels.  Israeli and Indian motives for the development of maritime power seem to have different but non-conflicting emphasis.  For Israel, although patrolling its 200-km coastline is undoubtedly important, it is primarily the need to create platforms for elusive second-strike retaliatory capabilities outside its minuscule territorial dimensions that is likely to elevate the strategic importance of its navy.  The US must seriously address the question of who will dominate the Indian Ocean, the eastern approaches to Europe and south and Central Asia.   

There are, however, considerations beyond regional stability that make a vibrant Indo-Israeli axis a clear US interest.  In terms of the geo-strategic balance of power, a growing apprehension of a future Chinese challenge to US primacy will, in all probability, lead to a commensurate warming of sentiment in Washington to the notion of regional counterweight to Chinese domination.  In this regard, a powerful, progressive India, bolstered by Israeli technological expertise, is a prospect that would be clearly concordant with such an American goal.

However, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the policy of liberalisation instituted by New Delhi, the US continued to be reticent in its relations with India.  Indeed, following the Indian nuclear test in 1998, reticence turned into unequivocal opposition, including the imposition of American sanctions against the country.  In the wake of the May 1999 insurgency in Kashmir from across the Pakistan border, there appeared to be emerging signs of a thaw in Washington’s attitude towards India and strenuous efforts should be invested in ensuring that this trend is not only maintained but strengthened.  Such endeavours ought to be channelled towards promoting US recognition that strong Indo-Israeli ties are not only compatible with but also conducive to America’s strategic interests.  Hence fostering trilateral Indo-American-Israeli cooperation and coordination is likely to produce considerable benefits for all sides.

Israel’s experience gained during its long and wartorn history would be invaluable to India in bolstering its security and in helping it repel those who would assail it.  Israeli expertise in techniques of border surveillance, sensor technology and electronic detection could contribute to the prevention of undetected incursions into sensitive regions along the Indian frontier such as that experienced in Kashmir.

Other areas of collaboration that could enhance the capabilities of the Indian Army relate to the upgrading of many aspects of India’s military inventory.  Such upgrading need not be restricted to the often cited fields of avionics, radar equipment, missile technology and other electronic systems.  India could also benefit from Israel’s extensive combat experience by introducing proven improvements in the personal equipment (and therefore in the combat effectiveness of the Indian soldier – from footwear and clothing to the type of weapons and ammunition.

Democratic peace is indeed a concept of tremendous significance.  However, it has not as yet been given its rightful weight in the formulation of the foreign policies of most nations (particularly and perversely in that of the US, which in many cases seems to persist in an unfounded even handedness in its attitudes toward libertarian and authoritarian regimes).  It is therefore, important that both India and Israel act vigorously to make this feature of international conduct the conceptual cornerstone and foundation for both the bilateral relations between the two countries and for the mobilisation of US support in favour of their continuing strength and development.

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