Guns and games

What if Pakistan received Israeli weapons that neutralise Israeli materiel which India uses to secure its porous border with Pakistan?

A recent revelation claiming that Israel had supplied high-tech weapons to Pakistan has caused a flutter. Although vehemently denied by the governments of Israel and Pakistan, the fact that the United Kingdom’s department for business, innovation and skills, which assesses export licences, had listed Pakistan as one of the destinations to which Israel exported arms with British components in 2010 and 2011 has generated bewilderment.

As Israel’s single largest customer buying up to 50 per cent of its total weapons exports, India has reasons to be anxious if the allegations are true. The items mentioned by the British as transfers from Israel to Pakistan include electronic warfare suites, radar and optical target acquisition systems and aero engines. Such sophisticated equipment could retrofit Pakistan’s American-heavy Air Force capacities and enhance its conventional fighting power against India.
If one were to extrapolate further (and the unpredictable history of Israeli military diplomacy does permit peregrinations), what if there were direct sales of other military hardware from Israel to Pakistan without the “third party” route involving British components? It would be a sacrilege from the Indian point of view if Pakistan clandestinely received, say, Israeli weapons that neutralise Israeli materiel which India uses to secure its porous border with Pakistan.
As an Islamic Republic that does not recognise Israel, Pakistan could be interpreted as pulling a fast one on the whole world if the details of defence dealing contained in the British records are true. The former Pakistani dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had always shown a pragmatic streak in wanting to open channels with Israel. In 2012, much after he relinquished power, he gave an interview to Haaretz explaining why Israel and Pakistan must cooperate.
Albeit such candour would be anathema to anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli Islamist zealots in Pakistan, Mr Musharraf argued that an Israel-Pakistan rapprochement would help Islamabad counterbalance New Delhi. “Israel has always been pro-India against Pakistan… advising them (Indians) and cooperating on intelligence, which is a very big deal. Pakistan adjusting its stance towards Israel has the advantage of possibly breaking those anti-Pakistan activities.”
In a cloak-and-dagger world, the motives of Pakistan to try and court Israel are obvious. But why, if the British government’s report is accurate, would Israel want to jeopardise its business and political relationship with its No. 1 client, India?
Analysts have come up with varied rationales. One is that Israel may be subtly sending India a warning not to cosy up to Iran by demonstrating that Tel Aviv can hold the hand offered by the opportunistic military top brass in Rawalpindi. A related speculation is that since Pakistan is a Sunni-majority country at odds with Iran on the question of protecting Shia minorities, Israel is conveying a hint to Tehran that it could be surprised by its eastern neighbour, Islamabad.
Iran’s official Press TV has closely followed the revelations of Israel arming Pakistan, indicating that there is great interest in Tehran about what exactly happened with those British arms component sales. Researchers have documented a pattern in Israeli defence diplomacy to arm governments that can check the activities of Iran and its allied militias. In 2009, the then Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman visited numerous African nations with defence contractors in tow and called for closer ties “in view of efforts by countries like Iran to influence them (Africans) and establish themselves there”.
But can Pakistan realistically be a means for Israel to apply pressure on Iran? Despite the succouring of anti-Iranian guerrilla groups like Jundullah by Pakistan, the notion seems far-fetched that Pakistan can be a means to undermine Iran. Where Israel is accused of secretly exporting weapons to Sunni Arab countries like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, it is obvious that the strategic motive is to limit Iran. The Daily Telegraph quotes an Israeli security expert, Yiftah Shapir, as saying: “These reports (of Israel arming Arab states, including those which do not officially accept the right of Israel to exist) do not surprise me… there is now much more direct sale activity (of arms) between Israel and the Gulf states, as we now see ourselves as being on the same side versus Iran.”
Yet, Pakistan is an immediate neighbour of Iran and the antagonism that the Sunni Arab states have towards Iran is not quite matched by Pakistan. The Islamabad-Tehran relationship is more nuanced than an outright sectarian lens would imply.
The other line of guesswork on the supposed backdoor military relationship between Israel and Pakistan is the purely commercial one. While no sane arms exporter would play to lose its main customer, i.e. India, there could be a diversification strategy in Israel to try and sell to more countries in order to have flexibility with prices. No manufacturer likes a market structure that is a monopsony (where there is one main buyer only).
Linked to this are bureaucratic turf wars within Israel between the foreign ministry and the defence ministry, on who to export weapons to and why. We got a glimpse of this mess when Israel’s state comptroller held the defence ministry’s director-general, Udi Shani, responsible for violating export laws by approving foreign arms deals to three unnamed countries “despite opposition from the foreign ministry”. The same Udi Shani is on record commenting that arms exports are “the most lucrative industry for the state of Israel”.
We may never know if Israel indeed went to Pakistan to earn extra bucks, or if some unknown saboteurs intent on sowing doubts in the India-Israel equation deliberately marked weapons not shipped by the state of Israel to Pakistan as official sales. This is a delicate time for reassuring New Delhi that not much (if any) Israeli weaponry has reached Islamabad. In the past, Israel was forced by the US to stop supplying defence wares to China. India has the market power vis-a-vis Israel to seek similar guarantees vis-a-vis Pakistan.
Yet, the murky nature of the international arms trade should alert us to the reality that anything can happen. The key for India is to maintain mutually beneficial ties with Israel while gauging, via classified and open-source intelligence, the decision-making calculus which informs Israel’s military diplomacy.

The writer is dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

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