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.