Owning a friendship

Sushma Swaraj’s Israel visit took place against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean’s growing significance for bilateral security.

Written by Martin Sherman | Updated: January 22, 2016 12:07 am
India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj speaks during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj speaks during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

As 2015 drew to an end, reports appeared in the Indian and Israeli press of an event of potentially far-reaching strategic importance, which went largely unmentioned in the mainstream media in the West.

The reports referred to the successful testing of the “Barak-8” long-range surface-to-air missile somewhere in the Indian Ocean, from the Indian navy’s stealth destroyer, INS Kolkata. The Barak-8 (“Lightening” in Hebrew), brimming with cutting-edge technology, is the product of a joint Indo-Israeli development endeavour. It reflects precisely the culmination of a process envisaged in a policy-paper this writer had co-authored with the late M.L. Sondhi as far back as 1998, when Indo-Israeli relations were still in their infancy.

The study — one of the very first to identify the ascendancy of India as a strategic power, and the potentially profound significance of this for Israel — recognised both the necessity of and the mutual benefits entailed in joint-Indo-Israeli development initiatives. And it designated the naval sphere to be of particular promise: “…sea power could become a factor of increasing significance. Israel’s long-term strategic need to strengthen its navy… corresponds well with India’s desire to extend its maritime capabilities”.

The successful Barak-8 test constitutes a ringing endorsement of that prognoses and also a fitting precursor to the just-concluded visit of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Israel. The visit, on the heels of one by President Pranab Mukherjee last October, and ahead of a speculated visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, signifies that India no longer feels the need to keep its burgeoning ties with Israel discreetly low-profile.

Commonly cited constraints that reportedly inhibited more demonstrative warmth between the two countries were: One, the wish to avoid angering India’s large Muslim minority; and two, concern for the considerable expatriate Indian community working in the Arab Gulf states.

However, of late, it appears that the “dampening” effect of these factors has waned. For, in what seems to be a discernible change in its voting pattern in international institutions, India has refrained from voting against Israel in various UN bodies, as it did in the past, preferring to abstain from anti-Israel resolutions.

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, almost a quarter-century ago, the bilateral relationship has grown steadily, irrespective of which party has been in power. But while it’s true that it was a Congress government, led by then-PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, that initiated the normalisation between the two countries, there has always been a perceptible sense of greater warmth in the relationship under BJP governments.

This enhanced ambience of Indo-Israeli amitié is certainly the case with the Modi government. Indeed, the appointment of the unabashedly pro-Israel Swaraj as foreign minister, who, when in opposition, served as chairperson of the Indo-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group (2006-09) and reportedly sees former Israeli premier Golda Meir as a role model, certainly seems to symbolise the desire for enhanced ties between the two countries.

Strengthening bilateral ties entails potentially huge benefits for both parties. Trade has grown more than 20-fold since formal diplomatic ties were established — from a meagre $200 million to almost $5 billion today.

For Israel, an uptick in its relations with India couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time — especially given the chilly winds blowing its way from the European Union, with talk of punitive economic measures evermore prevalent. The recent European decision to label Israeli merchandise produced beyond the pre-1967 frontiers has made Israeli concerns all the more tangible.

In contrast to Europe’s dark past of animosity towards the Jews, India’s history has virtually no record of any significant anti-Semitism. This, together with the burgeoning Indian middle class with its increasing purchasing power and the fact that India will soon be the world’s third-largest economy, makes it a lucrative target for Israeli business, not only in its own right but as a strategic alternative to the EU, should further restrictions on Israeli products be imposed by Brussels.

The prospect of enhanced trade with the East in general and India in particular clearly enhances the importance of the Indian Ocean theatre for Israel as a commercial maritime route. Accordingly, cooperation and coordination with the Indian navy is likely to become an increasingly important factor in ensuring the secure passage of cargo in both directions.

But for Israel, commerce is not the only reason for the increased importance of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, given the spectre of a resurgent Iran unencumbered by international sanctions and its coffers replenished by the nuclear deal, the waters of the Indian Ocean have assumed critical significance for Israel’s security, as reflected by its recently expanded and modernised submarine fleet.

The potential for mutually beneficial collaboration between India and Israel spans virtually the entire spectrum of human endeavour — from national security on land, sea and air, through cutting-edge civilian technology in medicine, food production and communications, to cultural exchanges, enhancement of water management and rural development. But beyond that, there appears to be a special affinity between the two peoples that transcends cordial government-to-government relations. The visit of the top diplomat of the world’s largest democracy, Sushma Swaraj, to the world’s most beleaguered one, was built on this foundation.

The writer, a former advisor to the Israeli government, is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies