|By S Samuel C Rajiv||July 2017|
New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Israel from July 4-6, 2017 — the first ever visit by an Indian prime minister, is a significant milestone indeed in India-Israel relations. It occurred 14 years after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to India in September 2003 and 25 years after the establishment of full-fledged diplomatic relations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in a remarkable gesture accompanied PM Modi through all of his public engagements, noted that Israel waited 70 years for an Indian prime ministerial visit. Netanyahu’s statement drew attention to the lack of success of the repeated efforts made by the Jewish state since its founding in May 1948 to establish full diplomatic relations with India.
Context to the visit
Ever since the momentous decision of the Narasimha Rao government in January 1992, India-Israel relations have seen significant growth, buttressed by cooperation in the security/defence sphere. Complementarities in Indian requirements (the need to modernize its Soviet-era military equipment in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War coupled with a challenging security environment) and niche Israeli technological expertise in upgrading equipment and providing force multipliers in the arenas of surveillance capabilities and point defence systems, among others, ensured a robust engagement in the security sphere.
Israel displayed considerable political will to supply India’s pressing requirements, as in the case of the airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) — equipment which were denied to China on account of American pressure. Israel’s help during the Kargil War in terms of the supply of ammunition and critical, cutting edge piece of equipment like laser targeting pods (manufactured by Rafael) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirages also demonstrated its commitment as a reliable defence partner in terms of crises. Apart from defence, the Israeli footprint across India in fulfilling the country’s developmental requirements has earned positive reviews to that country. Fifteen centres of excellence in the agriculture sector are a testimony to the promise of the critical role Israeli technology like efficient use of water resources, post harvest management, among others, can play in transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Given the above, the extended lack of a high-level political visit to Israel was indeed jarring. It is a fact that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Sharon to visit Israel but the visit could not take place for a variety of reasons, most notable of which was the defeat of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2004 general elections. It is pertinent to note though that significant bilateral visits did indeed take place in the intervening period. Foreign Minister SM Krishna for instance visited Israel on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in January 2012 while Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon visited New Delhi in February 2015. There has also been a steady stream of visits by central ministers and state chief ministers, including by Mr Modi in 2006 when he was chief minister of Gujarat.
As for Israel’s foreign policy goals, it has been cultivating close ties with rising Asian giants like India and China, as well as with regional countries like Turkey, in order to boost its exports, ensure the continued growth of its economy and extend its diplomatic reach. This is on account of its regional isolation given that only two of the member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) — Jordan and Egypt, recognize it and the difficult situation it faces in international forum like the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where it is the subject of negative resolutions every year. While its relations with Turkey have seen an uneven trajectory, Jerusalem can be proud of its burgeoning ties with India and China.
Israel’s bilateral trade with China is over $10 billion currently, while its trade with India in 2016 was over $4 billion (from about $200 million in 1992). Israel and China on their part entered into a ‘comprehensive innovation partnership’ in March 2017, when Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Beijing as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Israel-China ties, given that China established full-fledged relations with Israel a week ahead of India on January 24, 1992.
Nonetheless, the fact that Israel and China do not describe their relationship as ‘strategic’ is significant, as Israel continues to be constrained in providing military technologies to China on account of US pressure. It has, however, given the technology of Lavi aircraft that it was developing but did not manufacture, to China and Beijing has drawn from it extensively while designing its fighter jets along with inputs from Pakistan on F 16.
With India, the strategic aspect of the bilateral ties is the most important part of the relationship, and significantly, both Mr Modi and Mr Netanyahu have now openly acknowledged it.
Defence cooperation: State of play
Apart from AWACS, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aerostat radars and assault rifles that India has acquired from Israel, New Delhi is co-developing with it point defence systems for the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) – the long range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) and the medium range SAM (MRSAM), respectively. These projects are nearing fruition while similar systems are also being procured for the Indian Army. Such co-development/co-production projects are being touted as constituting the essential framework of future defence cooperation between the two countries. The export of such equipment will hold further promise.
A pertinent example which could see such cooperation operationalised relates to the Tavor assault rifles. Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) and the private sector Punj Llyod have set up India’s first private sector small arms manufacturing factory at Malanpur, Madhya Pradesh — the Punj Llyod Raksha Systems (PLR), to manufacture the Tavor rifles. Company officials told India Strategic that except for the barrel, all other parts of the rifle are to be made in India. Production started in May and all the components made in India are to be supplied to IWI in Israel for integration there.
The joint venture hopes to be the ‘go-to supplier’ for the small arms needs of the armed forces of both India and Israel, as well as of third countries potentially.
Significant equipment that India will secure from Israel in the near future includes two additional Phalcon AWACS, to the three it already has in its inventory. Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) are also set to be inducted, pending the finalization of the contract. India continues to get such cutting-edge force multipliers like ‘Spice’ smart bombs for its fighter aircraft, underwater surveillance systems for harbour defence, among others. A $2 billion deal was reported to have been entered into in April 2017 for LRSAM and MRSAM systems.
Robust institutional links in the security sphere buttressed by numerous joint working groups, Staff talks, visits of naval ships to Haifa, among others, continues to be an enduring aspect of the relationship. It is pertinent to note that nearly ten service chiefs from either side have undertaken visits, with the latest being Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba in June 2017.
Modi’s Visit: Key Takeaways
Given the robust and ongoing nature of such cooperation in the defence sector, there was not much anticipation of any big announcements pertaining to defence deals during PM Modi’s visit. Indeed, the seven MOUs that both countries entered into relate to cooperation in space, agriculture, water, and the setting up of the India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund (I4F). The I4F will involve an investment of $40 million and help fund the most innovative ideas and see them to fruition for the benefit of both the countries.
The Joint Statement released by the two prime ministers starkly illustrates the difference in content and context to the bilateral ties since 2003. The September 2003 Joint Statement for instance does not feature the word ’strategic’, while the July 5, 2017 statement prominently features it, and that too twice. The two sides affirmed that they ‘raised the bilateral relationship to that of a strategic partnership’ and that they will be pursuing a ‘strategic partnership in water and agriculture’. An India-Israel CEO’s Forum was set up to realise the full potential of bilateral trade and investment. Mr Netanyahu himself gave a demonstration of a vehicle-mounted water desalination unit to Mr Modi, pointing out how India could source clean water in its coastal areas for villages and small towns.
The three MOUs relating to space (atomic clocks; electric propulsion for small satellites; GEO-LEO optical link) amply support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view that even the sky is not the limit for the growth of the India-Israel partnership. A framework for cooperation in the field of cyber security was agreed upon while the two sides pledged to cooperate more closely in the field of homeland security. The Joint Statement lays special emphasis on the transfer of technology from Israel on co-developed products in the defence sector. Netanyahu and Modi further urge for strong measures against those who provide sanctuary to terrorists.
Prime Minister Modi on July 6, 2017 paid his respects to the memory of Indian soldiers who died in the liberation of Haifa in September 1918, after four hundred years under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman defeat led to the British Mandate and the subsequent developments that culminated in the creation of the Jewish state. Mr. Modi’s visit was not only a reaffirmation of such historical and cultural links (with the Indian diaspora an important part of such links) but ensures that India-Israel ties will continue to gain greater momentum in the higher ‘strategic’ orbit that they have now been placed.
The author is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.