Looking West, as far as Israel

The Indian minister for external affairs, S.M. Krishna, is visiting Israel starting January 9. The good thing is that such visits these days occasion no public teeth-gnashing by leaders of political parties that promote themselves as protectors of Indian Muslims and their interests. In an earlier time, any public interaction with Israel would have elicited howls of protest — the easy way of garnering political support on the cheap by conflating the issue of Palestinian rights and Arab grievances against Israel with the amour-propre of Indian Muslims. There is now recognition that Indian Muslim voters are no fools and it is counter-productive to demonise Israel, which, since its founding in 1948, has enjoyed a tight but subterranean relationship with India and, in the short span of 20 years since the bilateral ties came out of the closet, has emerged as the foremost supplier of advanced military technology and, verily, the western pillar of India’s security architecture (with Japan as the eastern pillar), if only Delhi has the geopolitical wit and the strategic wisdom to see it that way.
The trouble is the Indian government is still chary of being viewed as too close to Israel for reasons that were not sustainable in the past and make even less sense now. One would have thought that with appeasement politics given a burial by Maulana Jamil Ilyas, head of the All-India Organisation of Imams of Mosques, representing some half-million imams, who when visiting Israel in February 2007 to participate in an inter-faith dialogue, praised the Israeli government for allowing Sharia to be practised by Muslims of that country, Delhi would be less reticent about acknowledging Israel’s growing significance in India’s national security scheme of things. And yet the Israeli ambassador, Mark Sofer, until a few months ago, good naturedly complained throughout his tenure that India treated Israel as a married man does his mistress — intimate and confiding in closed quarters but kept at arm’s length in public.
If the details were to be out about the quality and extent of Indo-Israeli cooperation and collaboration in defence, space and anti-terrorism spheres, it would astonish most people. Suffice it to say, for instance, that the reason Soviet vintage military hardware in the Indian order-of-battle-combat aircraft, tanks and seaborne weapons platforms is still reasonably in-date, technology-wise, is because these have been retrofitted and upgraded with advanced Israeli avionics, missiles, radar, night-vision equipment, fire-control systems etc. Israel is assisting the Defence Research and Development Organisation to produce, in the face of American opposition, a first-rate AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar to mount on the indigenous Tejas light-combat aircraft or any other fighter-bomber in the IAF inventory — the sort of radar for air-to-ground strikes that is missing in the Eurofighter shortlisted in the medium multi-role combat aircraft sweepstakes. In like vein, the Indian Navy has helped Israeli submarines to conduct test-firings of cruise and ballistic missiles in the Indian Ocean and the two navies have together worked on complex sea denial manoeuvers. Israel is also involved in configuring micro-satellites for relatively short duration, low-earth orbit missions. Referring to the potential for technology and other cooperation, Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Amos Gilad, director of political-security affairs at the Israeli defence ministry, said, “The sky is the limit,” when I met him, as I did many other senior Israeli government ministers and officials, in Tel Aviv during a trip to Israel undertaken last summer at the invitation of the Israeli foreign ministry.
The thing is, the Israeli government picked up an idea I had originally pitched a decade ago, to Uzi Landau, the then Israeli minister of the interior when he was in Delhi. I had proposed that for Israel to develop enduring links with India, it had to go beyond being a mere peddler of military wares and begin investing in Indian defence industry. I had suggested that, given India’s comparative advantage in low-cost labour, Israel should transfer most of its production lines for traditional conventional military goods, from small arms and ammo, tanks and artillery, to naval fast-attack craft, to jointly owned companies in India to service the needs of both the Indian and Israeli armed forces, and to export to third countries, and that India could reciprocate by channelling huge funds into high-end, high-value military research and development and production programmes, such as the “Iron Dome” missile defence system, integrated all-arms network-centric systems for tactical and strategic warfare, space-based “killer” satellites, and fourth and fifth-generation thermonuclear weapons. Such a cross-invested Indo-Israeli defence industrial combine, I argued, will be profitable and a world-beater. Apparently convinced, Tel Aviv has been willing to make a start but the Indian government is dithering, unsure about meeting Israeli requests for equity in such joint ventures beyond the officially permitted level of 26 per cent. Dr V.K. Saraswat, science adviser to the defence minister, told me the Indian government fears that allowing a foreign country to own controlling shares will make for a “subservient” Indian defence industry. But were the defence industrial links to evolve along lines indicated above, what would result is mutual dependence. Why is that bad?
However that issue is settled, there is something else Delhi should capitalise on: the recently discovered reserves in Israel’s Mediterranean offshore of 1,300 billion cubic metres of gas. Mr Krishna should secure Israel’s approval for an ONGC Videsh project of a pipeline to carry this gas to a convenient point for offtaking by the Indian power sector and industry, and canvas for the Israeli sovereign fund being mooted to handle the revenues earned from its gas find to invest in the Indian energy sector, especially in solar technology where Israel is the leader.
The Israeli finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, during his visit to India last month, indicated that India ranks next only to the US in policy importance. The question is whether the Indian government will show foresight in investing politically in Israel, get the Indo-Israeli defence industrial complex off the ground and benefit from Israel’s offshore gas, or will it, once again, miss a strategic opportunity.

The writer is is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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