Israel matters but only so much
Israel has been important for India not only for its defence relationship, but equally from the point of view of India’s post Cold War identity. The premier element of the identity reconfigured for the world emerging from the Cold War has been liberalization. The neo-liberal program acquiring center stage status has inevitably had follow on implications. Strategically this has meant an unapologetic turn to realism, wherein national interests are taken as defining the direction of strategic posture and foreign policy. The opening up to the US and the reaching out to Israel, were part of this overall policy shift. Two decades on, the relationship can be said to have withstood the test of time, acknowledged by the commemorative visit of the foreign minister to that country.
National interest dictated strengthening of India’s defence sinews. The defence profligacy in the eighties, pursuant to the Indira doctrine, had led in part to the financial problems of the early nineties. This along with the demise of the reliable Soviet Union made India cast about for a fresh source of defence supplies. While the Indo-US relationship for reasons of historical baggage took time to stabilize, Indo-Israel equations moved ahead further and faster. This owed not only to Israel sensing an opportunity but the fact that the relationship, largely based on technological and commercial aspects of the defence sector, could be kept off the national radar screen in the levels of its intimacy and intensity.
The relationship is a symbiotic one. India gains access to technology, such as for air defence with its spill over into the nuclear dimension in terms of ballistic missile defence. Israel for its part gains understanding and tacit support of a rising power. At the micro level its citizens gain a destination to unwind from their demanding conscription. The ties have seemingly had little political cost so far, both internally and externally. This testifies less to the dexterity of the foreign policy establishment as to the subterranean nature of the areas of engagement. The fact that effects have not been remarked upon does not imply that they have not been in evidence, even if evidence has been kept scant on account of its sensitivity. Even as India’s defence capability and defence technology has gained, there have been influences of ambiguous benefit too. Take for instance, India’s approach to Pakistan’s proxy war. There is an unexceptionable consensus on policy that there can be no negotiations under a gun held to the head. This is of a piece with Israel’s strategy towards the Palestinians. India’s policy of procedural negotiations even as it builds up the asymmetry in relative strengths with a Pakistan in descent has shades of Israel’s management of its periphery. Israel’s strategy is for keeping the foe unstable in order that it is unable to pose a credible threat. It privileges conflict management over resolution. Shades of this are visible in India’s approach to Pakistan under a ‘wait and watch’ strategy that belies both its agency and positive prospects of meaningful engagement. India thus engages in talks more as a confidence building measure than for security building.
Operational strategy too has drawn on the Israeli model. India has moved from a defensive approach to counter insurgency towards an offensive strategy. This has included activation of the line of control by the late nineties. One area of learning has been the employment of counter infiltration methods based on the Isreali wall along the LC fence. India’s encounter with terror being taken as part of a wider Islamist challenge, an intelligence beltway also exists. Given the asymmetry in professionalism of the two sides, India can safely be taken as the recipient. India’s handling of the youth unrest in Kashmir has shades of Israel’s approach to the intifada, where that state was similarly inconvenienced. At the conventional level, the turn towards an offensive military doctrine, predicated on shallow thrusts, is reminiscent of the Israeli assaults on Lebanon and later on Gaza. This survey of the induction effect suggests greater critical attention to the relationship.
At the political level, to its credit, India maintains an autonomous view of the world, despite Israel’s persuasive advocacy of policy planks that serve its national interest. India has not bought into a ‘clash of civilisations’ view of the world. While a convergence of interest in the status quo in West Asia exists, prescriptions have not coincided. For India stability in the region is useful for its energy sources, remittances and labour diaspora, for Israel it is in warding off a non-existent Arab challenge, subject to buffeting to the unfolding of the Arab Spring. Israel’s citing of the Islamist threat has had limited effect on India’s more nuanced approach, despite the Israeli echo in strategic writings.
Given that the engagement with Israel has not been an unmixed blessing, India needs to keep the relationship under scrutiny. Also, there exists strong strategy advocacy alongside a political thrust, albeit currently latent, for closer ties. There is also a thrust, based on a reading of the structural level contest between the US and China, for India to gravitate towards a US led ‘democratic camp’, with Israel as member. While legitimate in a democratic polity, there is a possibility of these thrusts vying for institutional support in the security establishment. Defence technologists and the military are more susceptible in light of the necessarily close and less-than-transparent ties they maintain. As a first step, institutional interest must not be allowed to usurp policy space, and second, any orchestrated campaign by hyper-nationalists and cultural nationalists must not stampede the government into any policy mis-steps in West Asia, particularly with the Iranian stand off likely to culminate over the near term.
India’s multi-vector foreign policy has paid dividend. In this Israel has proved useful. But as per the dictates of the ‘national interest first’ strategy, India must keep its Israel connection from going beyond the pragmatic to constrict the normative input in policy.