India-Israel relations: from obscurity to certainty

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In 1968, the year when the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the premier external intelligence agency of India, was founded, the powerful prime minister Indira Gandhi instructed its head, Rameshwar Nath Kao, to imitate the working culture of Mossad.

Indira Gandhi was a woman of substance, a diehard nationalist who aspired to take India to a greater plane, and she aimed to ensure the security of India. Kao, or Ramji as he was known among close friends, was a seasoned spymaster, seemingly shy but suave. A Kashmiri Pandit born in Varanasi, he had studied English literature, taught law and joined the Imperial Police in 1940, going on to establish RAW as a highly professional institution.

Kao quickly established a rapport among members of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad secretly, and because of his efforts Israel succeeded in establishing a consulate in Mumbai in 1953 even though New Delhi, because of its commitment to the Palestinian cause, was reluctant to go for a full-fledged embassy.

Tightening Pakistan-China ties

The perceived threat to India’s security, Indira Gandhi as well as Kao realized, was growing relations between China and Pakistan, and then between Pakistan and North Korea with China in the background. Meanwhile another staunch nationalist – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – rose to political fame quickly, and his aggressive support to Beijing in the 1960s irked US president Lyndon B Johnson, who sent a warning note to Bhutto about cutting aid to Pakistan if he continued to sing praises for China.

In 1971, as Pakistan’s foreign minister, Bhutto visited Pyongyang to establish a military pact with North Korea just two and a half months before the India-Pakistan War. The next year, Bhutto was not only offered a warm welcome in Beijing and a close meeting with Mao Zedong, but also fetched US$300 million in military and economic aid.

Gandhi was watching the growing Pakistan-China-North Korea relations, which, she feared, could threaten India’s security, and this was the reason she entrusted Kao with establishing close cooperation between RAW and Mossad.

It was RAW-Mossad collaboration that informed Gandhi’s successor as prime minister, Morarji Desai, in 1977 about Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. But there was a problem, as Heinz Duthel has outlined in his book Global Secret and Intelligence Services II: Hidden Systems That Deliver Unforgettable Customer Service.

Desai phoned General Zia-ul-Haq and told him: “General, I know what you are up to in Kahuta. RAW has got me all the details.” At the same time, General Moshe Dayan, a hero of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, paid secret visits to Kathmandu to meet with RAW officials, upon which Pakistan blamed the RAW-Mossad liaison for thwarting its nuclear program.

Balancing act

India-Israel relations in the 1980s and 1990s were kept informal, because India had to condemn Israel’s aggressions in Palestine on the one hand and maintain Israel’s cooperation in defense and intelligence sharing on the other. Though inclined more toward a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian stand, India, as a devotee of the Non-Aligned Movement, established an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992 to take the bilateral relations forward, and five years later, Ezer Weizman became the first Israeli president to visit India.

As home minister, L K Advani was the first Indian cabinet minister to land in Israel, on a five-day visit in June 2000 to discuss with Weizman two core issues: technologies and techniques to fight terrorism. Taking the cooperation to curb terrorism into a real venture, Jaswant Singh,  the first Indian foreign minister to visit Israel, arrived in Tel Aviv in 2000 to set up a joint anti-terror commission.

In 2014, as the Israel-Hamas conflict was simmering, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj candidly stated that “there is absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel.”

New era of collaboration, arms deals

Political visits in recent years have marked a new era in India-Israel relations. Indian president Pranab Mukherjee paid a visit to Israel in October 2015, followed by Swaraj in January 2016. In September 2016, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh and Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar represented India at the funeral ceremony for former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

But the prime historic moment in India-Israel relations was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel on July 5-6 2017, and this week’s six-day visit to India by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meant to cement the bilateral relations that were formalized in 2003 when Ariel Sharon arrived in New Delhi.

The Kargil War in 1999 was a testing time, and Israel responded quickly by providing military equipment and ammunition, which resulted in India becoming one of its four largest arms markets.

In his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, Srinath Raghavan records that India acquired arms from Israel in the 14-day war that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

Intelligence sharing, as Indira Gandhi envisaged, which plays an important role in counterterrorism measures, has prompted close cooperation between India and Israel. The intelligence agencies of both countries have worked together more vigorously since the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, which resulted in the formation of a joint working group to fight against the menace of terrorism.

The partnership is now more formal and strategic, while economic deals are at the heart of the pacts between India and Israel. While bilateral trade shot up from $675 million in 1998 to $4.52 billion in 2014, military ties, especially hardware sales, stand at $1 billion a year in purchases from Israel.

India’s keenness on acquiring Spike anti-tank missiles from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems seems very much in the cards, along with the Barak-8 medium-range surface-to-air missile (MR-SAM).

Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), Aerostat radars and Heron-TP armed drones are among India’s major purchases from Israel.

On intelligence-sharing, Indian reliance on Israel’s top-class security system along with defense cooperation appears to be at the heart of this. Among the nine pacts that have been signed during Netanyahu’s visit, cybersecurity, space science, solar thermal technologies, oil and gas and technology in agriculture are prominent.

“Can you imagine drones for agriculture? That is what Israel can do for the Indian farm,” said a proud Netanyahu. He meant how big data and photographs of fields collected by drones can help farmers “direct the water to the level of the individual plant.”

Way back in 2003, the Indian government, realizing the importance of drip technology, formed the Task Force on Micro Irrigation to extend its National Mission on Micro Irrigation (NMMI) to encourage farmers to take up drip irrigation in a big way. India looked to Netafim, a Tel Aviv-based manufacturer of irrigation equipment, to provide irrigation solutions for agriculture and landscaping on about 6,000 hectares of land in Andhra Pradesh, known as the “Rice Bowl of India.”

The way ahead seems smooth, a road on which both India and Israel can ride far together

In 2006, India and Israel signed the Agreement for Agricultural Cooperation, which later evolved into Indo-Israeli Agriculture Project aiming to increasing crop diversity, productivity and resources use efficiency.

When Modi visited Tel Aviv last year, we heard Netanyahu speaking about “I2T2,” or Indian talent times Israeli technology, as the catchword for success, while his counterpart announced the India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund (I4F) under which both countries would encourage joint research and development projects in innovative and futuristic technologies and products. They underscored the role of youth in enhancing future collaboration in innovation, and decided to commence an annual exchange of visits of 100 youth from the science streams.

As of now, India-Israel relations seem to be on track, overcoming the last hiccup when India made Israel unhappy by voting against the recognition of Jerusalem as its capital at the United Nations last month.

The way ahead seems smooth, a road on which both India and Israel can ride far together. At the India-Israel Business Summit in New Delhi, Modi extolled India-Israel ties in glowing terms. “Given the scale of the Indian economy and the relevance of cutting-edge Israeli technologies for us, even [the] sky is not the limit for what we may achieve together,” he said.

Modi is in pursuit of expanding India’s ties with Israel from what Indira Gandhi dreamed of as only intelligence gathering in 1970s. Since Modi is less sensitive to Indian Muslims who might interpret this as an India-Israel-US triangle aimed against Islam and Islamic countries, he is all set to focus on India’s security and development.

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