On the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, I was surprised to see the kind of protests being made by some opposition political leaders. I wonder how many of them are aware that in the wake of the India-China war in 1962, when Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister, Israel had helped us with 81 mm and 120 mm mortars and pack howitzer artillery guns with ammunition desperately required by us. This was reciprocated by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who sent spares for Israeli Mystere and Ouragon aircraft and AMX-13 tanks in 1967. During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Israel delayed sending back the Pakistani F-86 Sabre aircraft that had been sent there for maintenance.
Those days, military-to-military relationship between the two countries was more covert than overt, primarily to avoid upsetting India’s relations with Arab and other Muslim countries. However, with the signing of the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin on March 26, 1979 (following the 1978 Camp David accords), the geopolitical situation changed substantially. New Delhi’s official stance on Israel altered visibly in 1991, when then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao granted an audience to the influential Jewish leader Isi Liebler. With ever increasing media scrutiny, it was no longer possible to continue with hide and seek relations.
In June 1996, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (then scientific adviser to the defence minister) visited Israel. A month later, Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen also visited the country. This was followed by the Israeli Naval chief Vice Admiral Alex Tal’s trip to India in November 1996. In January 1997, the Israeli President Ezer Weizman made a week-long state visit to India. There were no protests on these developments except for a mild one by the Arab League when I visited Israel officially during March 8-11, 1998. I.K. Gujral was the prime minister then.
My “goodwill mission”, the first by an Indian Army chief, at the invitation of the Israeli Army chief, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, was to reciprocate Israeli general David Shaltiel’s visit to India in 1967. The primary objectives of my visit were to: Understand Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) organisations, training and its anti-infiltration measures along its border with Lebanon; learn how the Israelis had developed their first-rate defence industry and; consider the scope of future defence cooperation between the two nations.
The schedule worked out by the IDF, in consultation with our defence attaché, was tough, devoid of any ceremonials except for a small guard of honour where General Lipkin-Shahak and I took the salute together. The IDF would take me out early morning every day to visit military establishments, border areas, or to witness field demonstrations of their new equipment. They would bring me back less than an hour before an official dinner. The Israeli officials were extremely friendly and forthcoming on whatever I wanted to learn.
The visit started with a cautionary message from New Delhi. On the very first day, our ambassador in Tel Aviv, Ranjan Mathai (later, foreign secretary of India) and I were informed that the Arab League nations had protested to our government over my visit to Israel. We informed the Ministry of External Affairs that I will not make ground visits to the Israeli-occupied areas of Lebanon, or Golan Heights which overlooked Syria. We flew over these areas in a helicopter.
The Israelis took me to the IDF northern and southern commands. I interacted with their commanders and soldiers in the field and saw the hi-tech anti-infiltration systems and innovative tactics that had made the comparatively short Israel-Lebanon border safe from infiltrators. At the IDF Training School, I was briefed on their facilities and training schedules. A remarkable demonstration was given by their 65 tonne Merkava tank crews.
Most of the tank gunnery instructors were young women. Some were tank drivers. We also watched demonstrations of the Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV) Searcher-2 (by now we had decided to buy UAVs from Israel), Thermal Imaging Stand Alone Systems (TISAS), hand-held thermal imagers, Long-Range Reconnaissance and Observation Systems (LORROS), night vision devices and artillery radars. I called on the Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai in Jerusalem, and also addressed the Israeli National Defence College in Tel Aviv.
What impressed me most about the IDF was the highly professional, informal but “no nonsense” conduct of its men and women soldiers in the headquarters and in the field. There were no protocols — only simple functionality. The best example that I can give is how my wife was taken to visit IDF families, medical establishments and other places of interest. There were no helicopter rides or armed escorts for her. She would be taken in a car by a major (lady), an English-speaking driver-cum-guide, and a young photographer. En route, they would eat or drink at the same table. When walking, they would carry their own plastic water bottles.
My team and I went to many industrial establishments manufacturing artillery guns, communications, surveillance and other military equipment. No amount of reading or information could have substituted for the insights that I got during this visit. It was evident that the Israeli defence industry had acquired excellent capability in electronics and also developed a formidable ability to upgrade any old weapon system.
When the Kargil war broke out next year, we asked the government of Israel to expedite delivery of UAV Searcher-1, for which orders had already been placed. The UAVs arrived in good time. During the trial runs in Rajasthan, one UAV was severely damaged. We realised that our UAV crews were not adequately trained to make use of them in combat. I sent an urgent request to General Lipkin-Shahak and the manufacturer, Israel Air Industries, for some UAV teams to train our crews in India. Both of them responded promptly. We also placed urgent demands for the supply of some ammunition and satellite pictures. This too was accepted. The Israeli equipment, UAV training teams, required ammunition, and satellite pictures arrived while the war was still on.
Eighteen years after the Kargil war, I believe that there is considerable scope for Indo-Israel defence collaboration and joint ventures in Make in India programmes. Prime Minister Modi’s visit can also further deepen cooperation in technological agricultural practices, water, smart cities and digital India programmes. India’s national interests should not be compromised on account of its electoral politics.