Modi has ensured Israel is India's newfound best friend

Ajai Sahni
Ajai SahniJul 19, 2017 | 18:40

Modi has ensured Israel is India's newfound best friend

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel on July 4, 2017, is, of course, historic. He becomes the first Indian premier to visit the country since its creation in 1948. For decades, even as the relationship strengthened, there was a curious hesitation in New Delhi to publicly acknowledge its significance.

India vacillated for more than two long years before it recognised the Israeli state, and it was only in 1992 that the Narasimha Rao regime established full diplomatic ties. Indeed, India's policy towards Israel has long been hostage to its fear of annoying the "Muslim world" - in particular, Arab nations who were openly committed to Israel's annihilation.


Meanwhile, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation stood as a phalanx behind Pakistan and its export of terrorism into India, and did New Delhi no favours. Arab monies have flowed generously into the funding of Islamist extremism and radicalisation across South Asia, and have done India grievous harm.

All this is changing quite rapidly. For one thing, the "Muslim world" is fragmenting as never before, and several constituent states have established friendly ties and, as terrorism and sectarian warfare increasingly threaten their own stability, even engaged in security cooperation with Israel.

Illustration by Anirban Ghosh.

The Palestinian cause has discredited itself through decades of terrorism, even as Palestinian terrorism has been marginalised by movements far more lethal and widespread.

Crucially, Israeli cooperation and support have given strength to India's counter-terrorism capabilities and efforts, and there have been several instances of successful operational cooperation. Several special force units, both from the Centre and from various states, have undergone specialised training in Israel.

The country's capacities against cyber-terrorism are, moreover, exceptional, and this is another sphere in which cooperation is emerging, and will be crucial for India in the future.

Counter-terrorism and defence are, of course, the lynchpins of Indo-Israeli relations. Israel, despite its minuscule size, has established itself as India's third largest source of defence and security equipment.


Crucially, Israel has shown itself to be willing to provide equipment and technologies that other "friends" deny us. This includes a range of missile systems, armed drones, laser-guided bombs, airborne warning and control systems (AWACs) and border surveillance equipment.

This relationship, however, goes far beyond common concerns on terrorism and security. Modi has rightly described Israel as a "technological powerhouse" and non-defence technology imports cut across a wide range of industries and, crucially, agriculture - in which sphere Israel's contributions are revolutionary. Bilateral trade has burgeoned over the years to a current estimate of over $5 billion, excluding defence.

There is also, in the present regime in New Delhi and its wider Hindutva constituency, an "ideological" dimension to the relationship. India's right-wing has long seen Israel as a model to emulate - as a realpolitik-based nation-state that emphasises military strength and a hard-headed retaliatory response to aggression, bound together by a single religion and a homogenised national culture.

The revival of Hebrew as Israel's official language is seen as a model for the resurrection of Sanskrit as national cultural unifier.

Here, however, we are in the realm of fantasy. Israeli militarism and machismo are not an ideological choice; they are survival imperatives in a relentlessly hostile environment. If Israel were to let its guard down for even a day, it would be wiped off the map.


This is not an eventuality that confronts India, despite grave threats in the neighbourhood and within the country. Crucially, moreover, a country of 8.2 million cannot be a model for a nation of 1.3 billion, particularly one that embraces the diversity of India's populations.

There is, nevertheless, much that we can learn from Israel - the commitment to national goals, the sheer dedication of purpose, a high sense of duty, the determination to secure "peace through strength" and the veneration of intellect.

Israel will prove a reliable partner for India; its fundamentals are sound and its perspectives enduring. Regrettably, this is not something that can be said about India.

(Courtesy of the India Today magazine.)

Last updated: July 19, 2017 | 18:40
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