Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon is currently visiting India. He is scheduled to inaugurate the Israeli Pavilion at the biennial Aero India 2015 defence and aerospace exhibition at Bengaluru and also meet his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar. Yaalon’s visit assumes significance given that this will be the first time that an Israeli Defence Minister is visiting India since formal diplomatic ties were established in January 1992.
Many Israeli cabinet ministers have visited India, including, among others, those holding the Finance, Interior, Tourism, and Agriculture portfolios. Given the robust defence interaction and defence trade between the two countries, the absence of a defence ministerial visit for so long was, however, an oddity. India is estimated to have purchased over $10 billion worth of defence equipment from Israel. One of the few instances of the government indicating the financial volume of the defence trade was in May 2007 when the then Defence Minister A.K. Antony informed the Rajya Sabha that ‘defence purchases’ from Israel during the period 2002-2007 totalled more than $5 billion.
Among big ticket items procured include the 2004 deal for three Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACS) worth over $1.1 billion. Other niche technological equipment purchases have included unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aerostat surveillance radars for the Indian Air Force (IAF), Galil sniper rifles and Tavor assault rifles, Barak anti-missile defence systems mounted on frontline warships and underwater surveillance systems for the Indian Navy (IN).
In addition, India and Israel are engaged in jointly developing long-range surface-to-air missiles (LRSAM) for the IN and medium-range SAM (MRSAM) for the IAF. Both projects are gaining traction and are set for completion in the 2015-16 timeframe. They have also jointly marketed the Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH). During Yaalon’s visit, reports note that contracts could be inked for additional AWACS aircraft and aerostat radars worth over $1.5 billion. It is worth noting that the Rajya Sabha was informed in May 2010 that additional AWACS would be procured in the 12th (2012-17), 13th and 14th five year plan periods.
Apart from defence procurement and joint development of weapons systems, there is robust institutional interaction between the armed forces and national security establishments of the two countries. Since 2001, as many as seven chiefs of defence forces from each side have visited the other country for consultations and to enhance mutual understanding. Then Chief of Army Staff General Bikram Singh was the latest to visit in March 2014 from the Indian side, while the Chief of the Ground Forces of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) visited in November 2013.
Service-to-service staff talks are a regular feature of these interactions. Port visits by IN warships are an integral part of defence diplomacy. The Joint Working Group (JWG) on defence cooperation has been active since 2002. A Sub-Working Group (SWG) on Defence Procurement, Production and Development (DPPD) is also functional, as are the JWG on counter-terrorism and dialogue on non-proliferation issues.
Given the above robust interactions, the fact that no Indian defence minister has ever visited Israel seems even more glaring. Brajesh Misra was the last National Security Advisor (NSA) to have visited Israel in September 1999. Israeli NSAs have been more frequent visitors, accounting for seven such visits by six NSAs since 2001. Joseph Cohen was the latest NSA to have visited in October 2014.
The highest political level interaction in India was the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003 at the invitation of the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brief interaction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2014 on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York was only the second such interaction between the heads of government since 1992.
Both leaders committed to take the defence relationship further, along with expanding cooperation in other fields like cyber security, water management, agriculture and solid waste management. It is pertinent to note that this interaction came close on the heels of Israeli military action ‘Operation Protective Edge’ during July-August 2014 that led to the death of over 2000 Palestinians.
In the aftermath of Modi’s meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Israel in November 2014. During his meeting with Netanyahu, Singh emphasized the importance of ‘capacity-building and training’ in the arena of homeland security, on which both sides had initialled an agreement. It is pertinent to note that while the Minister’s visit was the first such visit after the visit of the then Home Minister L.K. Advani in June 2000, two Israeli Interior Ministers visited India in November 2007 and November 2011.
The lack of such high-level political engagement between the two countries has been a sore point, especially from the Israeli side. At the joint press conference during former Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s January 2012 visit to Israel on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed the hope that such visits would be more frequent. Krishna’s visit itself occurred nearly 12 years after the July 2000 visit of former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh.
What accounts for the limited high-level political contacts between India and Israel for such an extended period of time? For one, both countries have time and again reiterated that they would not want to ‘advertise’ their close cooperation in the critical defence sphere. A common feature across different governments on the Indian side has been the stress on non-disclosure with regard to this cooperation.
For instance, the then NDA Defence Minister George Fernandes informed the Rajya Sabha in November 2001 that it was “not in the interest of national security” to give details about India-Israel defence cooperation. The same argument was repeated many times by UPA Defence Minister Antony, for instance in August 2007 in the Rajya Sabha.
The other contributing factor was the need to be cognizant of the reaction of domestic constituencies ideologically opposed to the strengthening of India-Israel defence ties. It is pertinent to note that the most vociferous opposition to the India–Israel defence relationship has been from the communist parties as well as from regional parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP). It should be emphasized though that the low levels of ‘high-level’ political contacts during the decade of UPA rule did not, however, impinge negatively on the growth trajectory of India-Israel defence cooperation.
The BJP, on the other hand, has been more open to engaging with Israel at the highest political levels as happened during its tenure in power from 1998 to 2004. A similar dynamic is evident during its current term in power, as Modi’s and Singh’s interactions with Netanyahu demonstrate. The BJP has always been a votary of stronger ties between India and Israel and its leaders have time and again (especially while in the opposition) expressed appreciation of the Israeli government’s muscular anti-terrorism and national security policies.
The Modi government came to office professing to follow a more muscular stance on national security issues. It has further affirmed that the defence procurement processes would be expedited to cater for the pressing modernization and upgrade requirements of the armed forces.
These dynamics are therefore likely to translate into greater political and defence engagement with Israel, a country identified by the MOD as one of India’s ‘main defence partners’.