The India-Israel relationship is not ideological, but it is being framed as such: Shairee Malhotra

In July 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel, and six months later, his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu visited India—much bonhomie was on display on both occasions. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
14 March, 2019

On 28 February, Robert Fisk, the strategic analyst and Middle East correspondent of the British digital newspaper The Independent, wrote a pithy piece titled, “Israel is playing a big role in India’s escalating conflict with Pakistan.” Fisk pointed out twin ongoing processes between India and Israel to support his argument. “Israel has been assiduously lining itself up alongside India’s nationalist BJP government in an unspoken—and politically dangerous—‘anti-Islamist’ coalition, an unofficial, unacknowledged alliance, while India itself has now become the largest weapons market for the Israeli arms trade,” Fisk wrote. He was indicating towards the presence of a military-industrial complex in India. In July 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel, and six months later, his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu visited India—much bonhomie was on display on both occasions. Fisk argued that the mention of Israeli-made Rafael Spice-2000 “smart bombs” by the Indian media while writing about the strikes by the Indian Air Force at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province is not incidental.

In his piece, Fisk quoted Shairee Malhotra, an Indian academic who is working as an associate researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies, in Brussels. In a January article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Malhotra argued, “India must continue to pursue a strong strategic, economic and security relationship with Israel. But this kinship should be regarded as more pragmatic and transformational than ideological.” Fisk is not hopeful of such an approach. “[It] is difficult to see how Zionist nationalism will not leach into Hindu nationalism when Israel is supplying so many weapons to India,” he wrote.

Though both Fisk and Malhotra warn the two countries against projecting a narrative of an anti-Islamist ideological alliance between India and Israel, Malhotra differs on many of his conclusions. In an email conversation with Praveen Donthi, a staff writer at The Caravan, Malhotra weighed in on Robert Fisk’s thoughts about India-Israel relations. She stated that the Indian government, its strategic community and its populace should note that though “it may seem attractive to label [the India-Israel] relationship as an anti-Islam alliance, India’s contentions are only with Pakistan, and not with the rest of the Muslim world, with whom India has robust relations.”

Praveen Donthi: The veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk recently wrote that Israel is contributing to the escalating Indo-Pakistan conflict, as India is the biggest arms client of Israel—its imports increased by 285 percent between 2008–12 and 2013–17, reportedly bringing in $9.2 billion in defence contracts from Israel in 2017 alone. What is your assessment?
Shairee Malhotra: Mr Fisk is an acclaimed writer with a career of decades of impressive journalism. With all due respect, I think Mr Fisk’s assessment is partially true and partially exaggerated. Yes, Israel is indeed India’s largest arms supplier and Israeli-made smart bombs were used in the airstrike on Pakistani terrorists. India has myriad security problems and as the recent Pulwama attack and many discussions surrounding it have espoused, a lot of India’s defence equipment is vintage and in desperate need of upgrade. Israel is a country that has a successful history of dealing with such security issues and has a massive arms industry. It is then natural, in a sense, for these two countries to collaborate with each other on security issues—with one possessing expertise in the matter and the other being in want of it. Israel has therefore become quite central in the consciousness of the Indian strategic community.

However, to say that Israel has thus contributed to escalating the Indo-Pakistani conflict is an exaggeration and seemingly holds Israel more responsible than India and Pakistan. It’s akin to saying the Soviet Union or the US were responsible for India and Pakistan’s previous wars because they were the primary suppliers of defence equipment to both at the time. Sure, most countries with robust defence industries have an interest in maintaining world conflicts under a particular threshold. But what has arguably contributed most to the current escalation is the fact that India is in peak election season and a seemingly tough line coupled with strong action against Pakistan would boost the current government’s popularity and contribute to keeping them in power. Prime Minister Modi did say before coming to power in 2014 that he would take a tough stance against Pakistan and not tolerate terrorism and with Uri and the current strikes, he has walked the talk. Also, after suffering the scourge of so many terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan, India is losing its patience with terrorism.

PD: Modi, the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the internet Hindus in general, have in the past expressed their admiration for Israel's approach to dealing with security problems. Is Israel’s influence on India growing since Modi has come to power? Or is the difference only in optics, as it is more open now?
SM: Yes, there are increasingly those within the wider Indian strategic community including think tanks, intelligence and military officials who believe that India can learn and benefit from Israel’s experiences and expertise, and that the two countries should collude on these. As I said, Israel now looms large in India’s strategic consciousness as a country that has the expertise to benefit India in its fight against terrorism. While the strategic relationship existed even before, PM Modi and PM Netanyahu’s visits to each other’s respective nations has allowed the same to come out of the closet. The vivid push and “[the] sky is the limit” bonhomie between the two nations since PM Modi’s advent to power has increased.

Having said that, this upward trend in India-Israeli relations would continue whichever government rules over New Delhi, and there is nothing negative or worrisome about this. It is pragmatic and interest-driven thinking, which is what drives international relations. However, what is disturbing is framing this pragmatic relationship in ideological terms which certain commentators and academics are doing.

PD: Is it possible that India is inspired by Israel—such as the six-day war of 1967 when Israel launched pre-emptive air strikes in Egypt following years of diplomatic friction—in adopting pre-emptive military strikes against Pakistan?
SM: Yes, I think India is in part inspired by Israel and its actions in the past. Also, in recent years, questions have been posed by those in the Indian strategic community as to why India doesn’t take a leaf out of Israel and America’s books and attempt to eliminate terrorists through covert operations or military strikes. So yes, there is definitely some inspiration being drawn from the so-called military successes of these countries, especially for an emboldened government that came to power with a huge mandate that has demonstrated boldness in other areas too, such as its controversial decision to demonetise India’s currency.

Also, the term “pre-emptive”—were these strikes pre-emptive? I’d say they were both retaliatory and pre-emptive. Retaliatory because the JeM [Jaish-e-Mohammad] attacked India and India struck to destroy its camps. And pre-emptive because India struck to destroy its camps to prevent them from attacking again.

PD: In your Haaretz piece, you wrote that the India-Israel relationship is “more pragmatic and transformational than ideological.” Is it possible that the ideological reasons are driving this partnership more, going by the rhetoric of Netanyahu’s statements while visiting India? For instance, during his January 2018 visit, he said, “Our way of life is being challenged, most notably, the quest for modernity, the quest for innovation [are] being challenged by radical Islam and its terrorist offshoots from a variety of corners.”
SM: The relationship is not an ideological one, but it is being framed in ideological terms and therein lies the problem. The ideological lens is overly simplistic and possibly damaging, as I’ve thoroughly elaborated in my Haaretz article.

India’s defence necessities are pragmatic and Israel is a major arms supplier to India. While defence does remain the largest component of the relationship, it isn’t limited to that. Also, although Israel has quickly climbed up the ladder as a major defence partner of India, it is by no means its only one—Russia, US and France still remain major arms suppliers to India. I reiterate—the fact that India needs to upgrade its defence capabilities is a pragmatic necessity, not an ideological one, and in these security needs of ours, we do find a ready partner in Israel.

While what Mr Netanyahu said might stand true for Israel, the situation of both countries is markedly different. In fact, on deeper thought, the statement isn’t even true for Israel—we know that in recent years, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been colluding with Israel against their common rival Iran.

Ideological reasoning in international relations [or IR] is often farcical. Even the Democratic Peace Theory—the most widely accepted thesis amongst IR scholars that posits that democratic states rarely go to war with each other other—has its opponents. The Islamic religious concept of the ummah—defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the essential unity and theoretical equality of Muslims from diverse cultural and geographical settings”—is almost obscure in IR with the failure of pan-Islamism and Muslim majority countries routinely at war with each other. IR is driven by interests, not ideology. Yet, states often resort to cloaking their actions and relations in normative reasoning to often justify and gain broader support for them—the most famous of this could be America’s invasion of Iraq cloaked in terms of democracy promotion.

While supporting the India-Israel relationship, those in the Indian government, the strategic community and indeed the Indian populace should wisely keep in mind that while it may seem attractive to label this relationship as an anti-Islamic alliance, India’s contentions are only with Pakistan, and not with the rest of the Muslim world, with whom India has robust relations. The Indian government does seem aware of this—we must remember that while the India-Israel bonhomie was in full swing, India voted in favour of Jerusalem at the UNGA. [In December 2017, India voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly resolution rejecting the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.] India has also not succumbed to American pressure against Iran. Thus, India isn’t blindly falling into any sort of tripartite alliance against Islam, but is in fact playing a careful balancing act.

I wrote some glaring facts in my Haaretz article—India has a whooping 180 million Muslim population out of which by the end of 2016, barely 23 had gone to fight for ISIS. I contrasted this with the tiny state of Belgium with a less-than-half-a-million Muslim population, out of which 500 went to fight for ISIS. I also stated that while working as a researcher in Brussels—the de facto capital of the European Union, I discovered that India was used as a case study within Europe for its relatively successful assimilation of Islam.

I have also detailed the differences in the ideological roots, unique circumstances and trajectories of the two countries—India is a multi-ethnic, pluralistic, secular state; Israel is a religiously conceptualised state. The so-called internet Hindus lend their massive support to Israel based on some overly simplistic conclusions of superficial similarities between the two countries and for how it fights Muslims. Commentators and IR academics must have better sense and refrain from jumping to naive conclusions based on some very loose and selective facts that feed right into the hands of Hindutva fundamentalism, legitimise it, and in turn, potentially alienate India’s largely peaceful Muslim population. India has suffered immensely at the hands of terrorism emanating from Pakistan and cooperation with Israel in the context of security is vital. But it should not be dangerously paraphrased as any anti-Islamic coalition which disproportionally signals Islam as India’s key security threat.

PD: You wrote that the India-Israel relationship goes beyond a convergence of right-wing Hindu nationalists of the BJP in India, and right-wing Jewish nationalists of the Likud party in Israel. Though the two countries have had full diplomatic relations since 1992, it seems this “ideological convergence” of the current ruling parties is what is really bringing the two countries together.
SM: Yes, perhaps this alleged “ideological convergence” between the BJP and Likud has brought the two countries closer. Both of them are ethno-nationalist political movements that believe in exclusivist conceptions of the state based on their majority populations. Both promote a narrative of their respective majority populations being victims at the hands of Muslims which resonates with many in the respective populaces—in Israel due to its controversial creation and its subsequent relations with the Muslim world, for India due to its bloody legacy of Partition and turbulent relationship with Pakistan.

But I don’t think the pragmatic reasoning for this relationship would alter even if say the Congress were to come to power or the opposition in Israel were to come to power, which is quite probable now given the corruption charges against [Netanyahu] and his likely indictment. The rhetoric and excitement around it may somewhat diminish. But Israel’s technological sophistication and expertise in not just securing its borders and confronting its enemies but also in the realms of agriculture and water management is crucial to India. At the same time, India’s current decision makers, the BJP, recognise the complexities of foreign policy and have continued to maintain their principled stance on Palestine and India’s close ties with most of the Muslim world with whom it has immense economic and energy interests.

For too long, India has, under the guise of maintaining its strategic autonomy, shied away from explicit friendships in the international scenario. The India-Israel relationship must continue to expand. What just needs to be done away with is the normative posturing of the relationship which could potentially endanger India’s international relations and also its domestic situation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.