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India and Israel: The Best of Friends

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy(left) and his Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh in Israel

In July 2000, Jaswant Singh became the first Indian Foreign Minister to visit Israel. The two countries decided to set up a Joint Commission which would steer their relationship in the economic, scientific, energy and cultural spheres. Jaswant and Levy also agreed to establish a joint forum for combating terrorism. Israel is the only country helping India to combat the Pakistani aided terrorism along its northern border. Neither the United States nor the European Union is prepared to condemn Pakistan or assist India to combat the threat. Israel is also the only country willing to transfer high technology to India. In the last two years, Israel has become the second biggest arms-seller to India and total bilateral trade has touched $1 billion.

The flight to Haifa, on the Mediterranean Sea, was a trip down memory lane for Jaswant. The Jodhpur Lancers led by his ancestors had helped liberate Haifa from the Turkish-German forces during World War I. The two Indian brigades under the command of Gen. Allenby had fought the Battle of Haifa on September 20, 1918. Jaswant Singh attributed decades of New Delhi's coolness to Tel Aviv to ''domestic policies because of a Muslim vote bank''. The bilateral relationship between India and Israel has entered the next step. "We were thrown out of the loop of West Asia, particularly in the post-Gulf war scenario. We have been now drawn into the process of peace here. It is a beginning," observed Singh.

Jaswant Singh dons the Kippah in Israel

Jaswant's Israel visit followed one in June by Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, a hardliner closely associated with the BJP's past campaign against the ''appeasement'' of India's 200 million Muslims. Advani became the first senior member of an Indian government to visit Israel since the normalization of ties in 1992. Foreign policy watchers in India have been talking about the NDA government's tilt. Advani admitted that his "main focus(was) on problems of trans-border terrorism. Israel and India have both grappled with it during the last two decades. Terrorist organisations are now known to establish and have international linkages. This makes it necessary for the countries which are victims of such terrorism to learn from the experience of each other."

Advani and Weizman discuss counter-terrorism

This is in tandem with the global shift. The west, deprived of an enemy like the Soviet Union, has found one in Islamic terrorism, which Israel has been fighting for 50 years. Post-nuclear India is willing to make common cause against Islamic terror from across the border. India made the first sign of tilt when it did not condemn the US cruise missile attack on Sudan, a non-aligned Muslim country. Next was the grant of visa to Salman Rushdie, which discomfited old friend Iran. Yet, India was wary of colluding with Israel till the Kargil conflict, which the west interpreted as another show of Islamic terror, and the Kathmandu-Kandahar hijack.

Admitted Dr Yehoyada Haim, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to India: "We helped during the Kargil conflict(Israel is known to have given remotely piloted vehicles). After the hijack many in the government asked us how we tackle such problems and wanted to see our facilities." One of the high points of Advani's visit was to Israel's border areas. "Their integrated border management system... allows their defence forces an advance warning, adequate for neutralisation of the threat," Advani noted.

Returning from the first trip by an Indian foreign minister to Israel, senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh attributed decades of New Delhi's coolness to Tel Aviv to ''domestic policies because of a Muslim vote bank''. However, observers of India-Israel ties noted that Singh's allegation was more an attempt to score a political point over rivals, especially the main opposition Congress party that ruled India for 45 of the 53 years since independence from British rule. Indeed, foreign policy analysts pointed out, it was the Congress government of former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao that decided to normalize relations in 1992 in recognition of changed international political realities.

The decision by India's Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao in January 1992, to establish full and normal diplomatic relations with Israel was partly influenced by an appreciation of the potential security cooperation between the two countries. Both countries perceive their non-conventional ambitions -- regarding nuclear weapons, missiles or satellites -- as an integral part of their search for technological independence, as a source of national power and as the tools for furthering national interests. The threats confronting India and Israel are dissimilar, neither do they have a common enemy. However, the rationales behind both countries' modernization, arms buildup and exports are not all that different. They both underscore a search for qualitative weapons and technological independence.

Without outside help, India's key defense projects would incur cost and time overruns. Even if completed, they are likely to become quickly outdated. However, since there is no need for India to re-invent the wheel, a possible solution could be found in arms trade. Likewise, without exporting its expertise or procuring external funding for its research, Israel's long-term plans are in jeopardy; Notwithstanding the favorable intentions of the current US administration, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the US to justify huge economic and military aid to Israel, classified as a developed country with an annual per capita income in the whereabouts of $20,000.

Decades of prolonged neglect and indifference should not inhibit either country from evolving towards strong security cooperation. Yet, while strategic partnership would be in the interest of both countries, arms transfers alone would be unable to sustain and develop a strong strategic partnership between India and Israel. Thus, instead of focusing on arms trade, both countries should identify certain key strategic areas and to seek joint research, development and production.

The following is a detailed, in-depth study of India-Israel relations by P.R. Kumaraswamy, who is an associate professor of Middle East politics at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, India.

I. Background: Indo-Israeli Political Relations

II. Mutual Security Concerns

III. Technological Independence and Qualitative Superiority

IV. Defense-Related Contacts Since Normalization

V. Areas of Cooperation

VI. Preconditions for Strategic Partnership

VII. Conclusion

There's no doubt India-Israel cooperation is going to increase dramatically in the years to come. This will benefit both countries immensely.

Israeli aid to Bhuj More on Israel-India defence deals