Monday, July 03, 2017
The asymmetry of India-Israel relations
India’s right-wingers have to shed their illusions about a militarily strong Jewish state
There is much excitement and expectation in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s July 4-6 visit to Israel, greater than his visit to Washington last week. India’s right-wingers, the Hindutva ideologues as well as the strategy hawks, consider the Jewish state to be a prized friend, and even now rue the fact that India kept away from Tel Aviv for more than 40 years. The other side, comprising mainly of leftists, liberals and secularists, have been opposed to India-Israeli links because in their view, it meant letting down the Palestinians, the Muslims in India and the Arab and Muslim world. Of course, both sides are hugely mistaken in their presumptions. The reasons are really complex and no one wants to disentangle many of the strands behind the mushy perceptions.
The right-wingers wrongly believe that closer India-Israeli defence and security relations are to the advantage of India. In their enthusiasm for the Jewish state, which they think is heroically defying the Arab and Muslim world with its single-minded sophisticated defence dragnet, they forget that the differences in size between India and Israel are of such magnitude – the asymmetry is stark – that Israel can benefit from the India connection because India is a huge defence market for Israel but India has little to gain from the deal. Secondly, Israel can never alone meet the defence requirements of New Delhi.
India’s defence needs and strategic compulsions are vastly different from that of Israel. Tel Aviv’s strategic neighbourhood is confined to Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It does not extend even to the larger Arab world. India’s strategic neighbourhood stretches from the Straits of Malacca to the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean, and from South-East Asia to West Asia and into Central Asia. In terms of sheer size, India is a giant and Israel is a midget in very objective terms. This mistaken importance given to Israel in the India-Israel equation is akin to the enthusiasts comparing Singapore and India in terms of economic efficiency and standards of living, and popping up the absurd question, “Why cannot India be like Singapore? If Singapore can do it, why cannot India?”
Israel has admirable achievements in the fields o agriculture and science, but there is very little that India can borrow from it. The much acclaimed drip-irrigation has had its day even in Israel, and India’s farm challenges are far more vast and complex.
It would be wrong-headed to think that Israel’s military technology, in spite of its heightened excellence, is of any great importance for India. The Indian military needs and strategies cannot depend on Israel’s experience deriving from a mini-theatre of conflict where it is pitted against a non-military entity like the Palestinian territories and the simple military setup of many of its Arab neighbours. India faces a China that spends far more than India on its defence and a Pakistan which imports all of its military ware from the United States. It should not come as a surprise if Israel would want to sell defence technology to Pakistan. Israel is only too keen to establish diplomatic and political links with Pakistan, and in the last decade, when Pervez Musharraf was calling the shots, the two countries came very close to establishing links through Turkish mediation. Even as the United States sells its military ware to one and all, Israel too is keen to sell to everyone and anyone. So, the strategic hawks are wholly mistaken about Israel’s importance for India in security matters.
The HIndutva ideologues are as far off the mark as the strategy hawks with regard to Israel. They simply misread the Israel issue. The Jewish state is not fighting an ideological battle with the Islamic world. It is not a clash of civilisations of the regular Huntington kind. Islam and Judaism have had smoother relations with each other than Western Christianity of Europe and the Jewish Diaspora. Israel is as a matter of fact an outgrowth of the disturbed history of Western European Christian and Jewish Diaspora relationships, which culminated in the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The Jews in Europe were the archetypal religious minority. The Jewish Diaspora felt that a Jewish state is its ultimate refuge in a world, especially Europe, divided into nation-states.
Israel just wants to hold on to its present territory, and it is fighting every inch of ground against Palestine because of the gnawing sense of fear and insecurity that any compromise with Palestine would ultimately make it vulnerable. All its military build-up is to save the territorially small state of Israel. It has no plans to spread its territory beyond the larger area of Palestine. Israeli security experts see the emergence of a Palestinian state as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. Even if it wants to settle for a two-state solution, Israel wants Palestine to be as militarily weak as possible. This innate fear derives from Israel’s experience of the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars. Here it is not a question of fairness, rationality and legality. And it is necessary to recognise this: Israel desperately wants to be accepted by its Arab neighbours as a legitimate state. It seeks legitimacy and its military belligerence is due to the fact that it has not got it so far. Israel is not a secure state in existential terms.
What Israeli leaders, especially the moderates, expect India to play the role of the trusted mediator between the Jewish state and the Arab states. India’s hesitancy is understandable because this is treacherous territory. The insecurities on both sides are so deep that no one of them would be easily assured by the other. That is why, India has been fighting shy off playing the honest broker, and perhaps rightly so. But it is necessary that India should maintain its trustworthiness with Israel and with Palestine. It would be a folly to play a partisan role in terms of sheer strategy. If Israel has US-derived military technology to offer, the Arab states too are ready to invest with their billions of petro-dollars in the Indian market.
There is need for India’s right-wingers to think right and straight about the shaky position of Israel.
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