India chooses its partner of the future as an anxious Middle East watches
AFTER 25 YEARS of courtship, India and Israel have made their affair official. Looking at partner Narendra Modi, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it ‘a match made in heaven.’ The Modi-Bibi bromance has borne fruit and a relationship thus far under wraps has been accepted openly. India’s Ministry of External Affairs described the change in status as one from a bilateral relationship to that of a strategic partnership.
“Even though we didn’t call it a strategic relationship earlier, everyone knew what it was,” says Professor Ephrain Enbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), who has been visiting India for more than 20 years since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1992. “But now, you have a Prime Minister who doesn’t care about international pressure or being politically correct, and hence we are moving forward.”
Addressing the press, Prime Minister Modi spoke of the troubled neighbourhood and alluded to terrorism as the main rationale for cooperation between the two countries. “India and Israel live in complex geographies,” he said, “We are aware of strategic threats to regional peace and stability.” While Israel is surrounded by hostile Arab nations which support the Palestinian cause, India is locked in frequent confrontations with Pakistan and faces a threat from China. “India has suffered first-hand violence and hatred spread by terror. So has Israel,” said Modi. “Prime Minister Netanyahu and I agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests and also cooperate to combat growing radicalisation and terrorism.”
The terror groups that attack India and Israel are different. While those striking India are sheltered or aided by Pakistan, the attackers of Israel are Palestinians demanding a solution to the 70-year-old dispute over territory. Prominent among the latter is Hamas, which won Palestinian elections as a party in 2006, currently rules the Gaza Strip, and is classified as a terrorist group by the US and EU. The only terrorist group that threatens both India and Israel is ISIS, most of whose victims are Muslims in the Middle East. Broadly, though, the two countries refer to radical Islam and terror as their common enemy.
Professor Enbar talks about how New Delhi and Tel Aviv have been sharing intelligence and comparing doctrines on terror. He also claims credit for encouraging India to take actions such as last year’s surgical strikes against terrorist camps across the LoC in Kashmir. “The Modi Government conducted a strike against Pakistan— this is very unusual, right? We have been telling India to go tough. ‘You are not Christians, you don’t have to turn the other cheek.’”
Prime Minister Modi’s visit may have turned Nehru’s Israel policy on its head and ignored Gandhi’s rejection of the Jewish state created in 1948, but it has left no doubt that India and Israel are partners of the future. While defence cooperation has been steadily expanding, under Modi’s leadership, it has risen sharply—by 117 per cent from 2015 to 2016. The joint statement on defence ties has no mention of it, but Israel is hoping to sell India its ‘iron dome’, a vast invisible shield that offers a city protection from missiles and mortars shot from as far as 70 km. Israel has been using one since March 2011, five years after the 2006 war with Lebanon. An Israeli defence expert in the know of the dealings reveals on the condition of anonymity that Israel is warming up to the idea of its joint production with India and that the two might even consider selling it to third countries. Asked about this, officials of the foreign affairs ministries of both countries decline any comment.
Modi’s visit may have turned Nehru’s Israel policy on its head and ignored Gandhi’s rejection of the Jewish state created in 1948 but it has left no doubt that India and Israel are partners of the future
Many Indian defence experts are unconvinced of the value of an Israeli missile shield. Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, does not think the ‘iron dome’ suits Indian needs. “It is a unique product meant uniquely for the Israeli market with no realistic export prospects,” he says, “India needs mobile air defence against short- range ballistic missiles like the Nasr. The ‘iron dome’ is not mobile. Importantly, previous Israeli attempts at technology transfer have failed primarily because India has neither the scientific nor the industrial base to absorb these.”
In another field of cooperation, India and Israel have agreed to establish a ‘Strategic Partnership in Water and Agriculture’, which Modi envisages supporting his goal of doubling the income of Indian farmers by 2022. As India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said, a number of secretaries from the Government had visited Israel to prepare this partnership. “Cooperation in the sector of water and agriculture is huge but isn’t understood. Doubling of the income of the farmers can only happen through tech innovation. This feeds into our national growth,” he added.
In agriculture, the focus would be on post-harvest technical knowhow and market linkages. Israel’s experience could help India. In water management, Israel’s success is in visible evidence— the landscape from Jordan to territory now under Israel’s control transforms from barren to green within minutes. Foliage in public squares across Israel is watered with high efficiency. India and Israel have been working together on irrigation, and two fresh MoUs will intensify it. The first deals with establishing a national campaign for water conservation. Israel’s Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz said this effort will highlight the importance of saving water and re-using this vital resource, and will be promoted through digital channels including an interactive interface with Indian citizens. The second document discusses cooperation in the management of the water sector; its aims include minimising its loss, financing and establishing infrastructure for it, implementing new technologies, and enhancing the efficiency of relevant companies and institutions. Some plans will be implemented in coordination with Uttar Pradesh’s water board.
In all, seven agreements were signed. That these were the focus of the joint statement and Palestine got only a single mention has pleased Israelis. Says Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem, “Modi conveyed a sense that bilateral relations can be upgraded irrespective of Israel’s policies regarding the conflict.” But many Palestinians, who have traditionally counted on Indian support, seem displeased.
The stretch from Ramallah to Nablus in the West Bank is a garden of olives. “One day,” says Myassar Atyani, a Palestinian, “I lost my ancestral olive field.” She accuses the Israeli government of being hand-in-glove with settlers. “We have the [land title] papers and so do the Jews, because the Israeli government is of Jews and they give them fake papers,” she says. Her olive field is in Area C, which according to the Oslo Accords of 1995, should have been handed over to Palestinians long ago, but instead on which Israelis settlements—like Eli, Shilo and Ofra, to name a few—have continued to expand and come up. “I invite the Indian Prime Minister to visit our settlements too, come and have a look at how we are arrested and how our land in snatched away,” says Atyani angrily.
The elephant in the room is Iran, a country that India has strong oil ties with and is geo-strategically significant as an entry point to Central Asia that gets around Pakistan. Iran could be Israel’s nemesis
An activist with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Atyani has been arrested thrice by Israeli forces—once for pelting stone and later because she had once done so. She is upset with Modi for ignoring her people’s struggle even though he had assured the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that India stood by a two-state solution to the conflict. “These are just words,” she says, “If India stands by us, then buy our olives, trade with us, visit us.”
Ayman Hussein of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform Bloc in the Palestinian legislative council is disappointed too, especially since he has a personal connection with India. He had lived in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar for nine years and done his Master’s degree in Chemistry at Delhi University. “It is unfortunate that the Indian PM has put the world’s biggest democracy’s weight behind occupier Israel. We have always spoken of Gandhi, Nehru and Mandela as icons of peace. When I lived in India, Yasser Arafat often came over to meet his sister Indira Gandhi,” says Hussein.
He reminisces on the good old days of Indo-Palestinian ties, and sees no reason to link New Delhi’s stance on Palestine with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s lack of support for India on Kashmir. “We are not Pakistan,” he says, “we are Palestine.” In the same breath, he offers a rather non-committal view of groups like Hamas on Kashmir: “It is for India and Pakistan to sit together and figure it out.”
The Palestinian Authority that governs West Bank, where Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party holds power, does not seem rattled by closer India-Israeli ties. Abdala Abdala, a member of the legislative assembly of Palestine, says that by missing a ceremonious stop over, Modi isn’t diluting India’s support to their cause. “India is a sovereign [country] and has a right to choose. Remember our president [Abbas] was in India not very long ago. We have a very strong relationship with India and our future and ties with the people of India are not decided by one standalone visit.”
THE ELEPHANT IN the room is Iran, a country that India has strong oil ties with and is geo-strategically significant as an entry point to Central Asia that gets around Pakistan. Ruled by Islamic clerics, Iran could be Israel’s nemesis. Over the last six years, Tehran has been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and Israel fears its real aim is to create an ‘arc of influence’ which would give it direct access through Iraq and Syria to Israel’s borders.
Says Zalzberg, “Netanyahu is keen to upgrade bilateral relations, but this requires stomaching Modi’s support for Syria’s President Assad and his cooperative relations with Assad’s Iranian allies. This is particularly challenging currently, when at the top of Netanyahu’s strategic priorities is preventing the emergence of a so-called Tehran-Beirut land bridge via Syria—a military supply line to supplement the existing air corridor [and a potential] conduit of Shiite militias.”
Israel controls the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967, but the threat of a stronger Iran has left Israelis sleepless. To mitigate the danger, Israel’s defence forces are helping Syrians on the ground who need medical aid, thus creating friendly pockets within this country. In Nahariya, a town some 10 km from the Lebanese border, Galilee Hospital has treated 1,600 Syrians over the past three years. The patients are brought in by Israeli soldiers and the hospital accepts them with no questions asked. Says Dr Leonid Kogen, who works at the medical facility, “Most of the patients come with severe burns and these are war injuries. When you operate on them and give them an arm or fix their knee, they don’t think of you as an enemy.”
A quarter of the Syrian patients (access to whom Open was not granted), according to the hospital’s management, are women and children. Ocampo Smadar, head nurse at the paediatrics department, shares a memorable experience of one her Syrian patients: “The Syrian lady was pregnant and over time we became friends. When she delivered her baby girl, she named it after me. Many times she would ask me to bring her a lipstick or eye make- up because she wanted to feel good, feel like a woman again.”
Israel’s goals may be more strategic than altruistic in nature, but for the hospital staff, all patients are equal. When asked if they have perhaps treated extremists from across the border, the nurse replies, “So? They are all patients for us.”
Media reports have accused Israel of treating some anti-Assad rebels operating in Syrian villages near the border. Mitra, who had visited the border as a part of a delegation last year, says that in his experience Israel has reason to help some jihadists. “What we know is that Israel does provide support to Nusra [an Al-Qaeda affiliate now called Tahrir al Sham], and it doesn’t take much to conclude that some of this aid is in fact lethal. Israel’s goal at the moment would seem to be to keep Syria boiling and focused internally, rather than Assad using Hezbollah and other proxies against Israel,” he says.
The hospital was bombed in the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 and now has an underground bomb shelter. The Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, on its part, claims to be protecting Lebanese citizens from Israelis and helping Palestinians keep their struggle and ‘right to return’ alive.
India is caught in a complex web of rivalries in the Middle East. In what is partly being seen as veiled caution to India for its Israel overtures, days before Modi’s Israel visit, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted, ‘Muslim world should openly support people of #Bahrain, #Kashmir, #Yemen, etc and repudiate oppressors & tyrants who attacked ppl in #ramadan.’
Sushant Sareen, an expert on strategic affairs, calls the maintenance of a relationship with Iran after the Prime Minister’s Israel visit a test of diplomacy. “Clearly, we are entering a phase where we will be juggling diplomatic balls between various competing, conflicting and contending partners, and in the process advancing our interests,” he says. “India has not only dehyphenated the reins between Israel and Palestine but also between Israel and Iran. We will deal with each one, even differ with them. It’s a bold and brave new template of foreign policy.”