Until 1991 there was no relationship between Tel Aviv and New Delhi. During the Cold War, Israel had remained firmly aligned to the United States, while India opted for closer ties with the Soviet Union.
However with the fall of the USSR, full diplomatic relations were established between Tel Aviv and New Delhi.
Military cooperation was initially quite small.
Even as late as February 1999, when India signed a deal with Israel for 250 battlefield surveillance radar systems for artillery and hand-held radar for the infantry, arms deals were relatively modest by international standards.
By July 2001 however, cooperation had increased to billions of dollars.
The Israeli air industries establishment signed a $2 billion contract with the Indian defence ministry to provide advanced military aviation equipment.
India also received in this package Barak ground-to-ground missiles at a cost of $280 million and pilot-less planes at a cost of $300 million, as well as the Heitz anti-missile system developed for Israel in the USA.
The contract also stated that India would receive three radar early warning Phalcon planes and expert mechanics to modernise Indian planes and tanks – such as the MiG 21s, MiG 29s, Sukhumi helicopters and Russian made T72 tanks.
In December 2002, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes announced in parliament that India and Israel were planning to jointly produce and market an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), a special helicopter that can work at very high altitudes such as in Kashmir.
Overall, contracts of over $3 billion for the supply of military equipment and knowhow are said to be in the pipeline.
Russian-made fighter jets to be
India and Israel enjoy intelligence agreements that include shared access to data from India’s own new reconnaissance satellite.
Israel also benefits from India’s vast ocean. North Africa and the European Union are highly unlikely to allow Israeli submarines to conduct test launches of cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in the Mediterreanean.
Such tests were carried out in the waters of the Indian Ocean in 2000.
Change in relations
The warming in relations was assisted by a growing political convergence between governments in both countries.
The 1990’s witnessed the rise to power of the hardline right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi. The BJP’s political counterpart in Tel Aviv was the Likud party, led initially by notorious hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu and currently by the more extreme Ariel Sharon.
Both saw a common interest in fighting nationalist struggles in their respective backyards leading some observers to talk about an anti-Muslim axis.
The events of 9/11 strengthened the alliance.
Arms sales are now being supplemented by troop training between the two countries. In February this year, a deal was struck whereby Israel will train four battalions of nearly 3,000 Indian soldiers for specialised insurgency strikes.
As part of this deal, India made an additional $30 million agreement with Israel Military Industries for 3,400 Tavor assault rifles, 200 Galil sniper rifles as well as night vision and laser range finding and targeting equipment, a significant change as India used to buy nearly all of its military hardware from Russia.
Many Indians are unhappy at their
Indeed, Indo-Israeli trade is on the rise generally, climbing from about $250 million annually to more than $1.15 billion in the last four year, with the defence sector making the most rapid growth.
Diplomatically, the Indian government seems to have cast aside its policy of being seen to be cosying up to a state still regarded as a pariah in many parts of the Muslim world.
The most obvious was during the 2001 Durban Racism Conference, when, according to Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University Martin Sherman, “India helped thwart Arab attempts to insert virulent censure of Israel in the conference’s final resolution.”
The then foreign minister Shimon Peres had warm words for India’s action, praising it for its help in “tipping the scales on the side of justice.”
Benefits are mutual, observes Professor Sherman: “Israel and its affiliated lobbies in Washington can be a useful instrument, for promoting New Delhi’s case on the Pakistani issue.
This was a topic raised in a recent trilateral meeting held earlier this year in New Delhi, attended by Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs (JINSA), the influential Washington-based thinktank, former Israeli intelligence chiefs and Indian security and defence experts.”
Peres’ 2001 visit to India
The US approves of Israel’s alliance with India, even allowing Indian and US troops to train together in Alaska.
A 2001 Pentagon review concluded that the Arrow missile system could be exempted from sales restrictions imposed by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international agreement designed to stop the spread of offensive missile technology, because of the missile’s defensive nature.
The US may see an alliance between India and Israel as creating a potent stabilising force in the regions surrounding Iraq – namely Syria and Iran, which together with like-minded regimes such as Turkey, could contribute significantly towards facing down anti-US forces in Western and Central Asia and beyond.
There are however considerations beyond regional stability that make a vibrant Indo-Israeli axis politically expedient.
The exact extent of the involvement in Kashmir by Israel’s intelligence agencies is far from clear, but it fits into Israel’s increasing focus on events in Central Asia, and as far afield as Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, to counteract Islamic movements.
More importantly, India and Israel may be an aid to the US in the newly emerging balance of geo-strategic power, the growing Chinese challenge to US primacy will almost inevitably dictate the need for a regional counterweight to Chinese interests in Southern Asia in the coming years.