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 amor propre’ of Indian Muslims. There is now recognition that Indian Muslim voters are no fools and it is counter-productive to demonize Israel, which since its founding in 1948 has enjoyed a tight but subterranean relationship with India and, in the short span of twenty 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 about 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 Organization of Imams and 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 practiced 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 until a few months back, Mark Sofer, 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 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 DRDO 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 MMRCA sweepstakes. In like vein, the Indian Navy has helped Israeli submarines, for example, to conduct test-firings of cruise and ballistic missiles in the Indian Ocean and the two navies have together worked on complex sea denial maneuvers. And Israel is involved in ISRO projects to configure micro-satellites – its specialty — for relatively short duration, low-earth orbit, missions. Referring to the potential for technology and other cooperation, Major General (ret) Amos Gilad, Director of political-security affairs at the Israeli Defence Ministry, exclaimed “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 channeling huge funds into extreme 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, predictably, is dithering, unsure about meeting Israeli requests for equity in such joint ventures beyond the officially permitted 26% level. Dr V.K. Saraswat, Science Adviser to 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 capitalize on: the recently discovered potential reserves in Israel’s Mediterranean offshore of 1,300 billion cubic metres of gas. Minister 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, moreover, 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 leader.
The visiting Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz indicated that India ranks next only to the United States 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 whether it will once again miss a strategic opportunity.
[Published in 'Ásian Age' and 'Deccan Chronicle', January 5, 2012, available at www.asianage.com/columnists/looking-west-far-israel-580 ]