Tuesday, March 19, 2013

India blots out Israeli issues

By S Samuel C Rajiv


India and Israel established formal diplomatic ties in January 1992. In the more than two decades since, the relationship has seen enormous growth. Broadly, these have encompassed three pegs - defense, trade and people-to-people contacts. Despite opposition from some quarters, the positive growth in the trajectory of the relationship has not suffered. This is both due to
India's foreign policy "balance" as well as Israel's active public diplomacy and outreach activities.

Three pegs
The defense aspect has been the most prominent peg so far. Israel's assistance to the Indian armed forces during critical times like the Kargil War (when it supplied much needed ammunition for its howitzers among others) was well received. India is estimated to have obtained over US$9 billion worth of equipment from Israel, ranging from multi-billion dollar Phalcon AWACS to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's). Joint cooperation in the production of long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) for the Navy and medium range SAM's for the Air Force are currently being executed, apart from other cooperation.

Bilateral trade which was less than $200 million in 1992 has jumped to $6.6 billion during 2011-12, with over $4 billion of it being exports from India. In 2011, the diamond trade constituted over 50% of trade volumes between the two countries. Other sectors of active trade include chemicals, pharmaceuticals, information technology, apart from agriculture cooperation.

The third peg of the relationship is the positive people-to-people contacts. Nearly 50,000 Israelis visited India during 2011, making up over 17% of foreign tourist arrivals (FTA) from West Asia. Israeli tourists in 2009 made up nearly 20% of all FTA's from the region. The number of Indians visiting Israel was over 50,000 in 2012. The figure stood at 40,000 during the previous year, which was more than double than during 2009. India became the number one source country of tourists from Asia to Israel during 2012.

Consequently, there has been a strong push to further strengthen this segment of the relationship. Both countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to boost tourism ties during the visit of the then Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahay to Israel in June 2012. Israel is set to open a new tourist office in Mumbai as part of the MOU (set to open in May 2013) and has also agreed to increase the frequency of the flights of the national carrier El Al to Mumbai to seven times a week instead of the earlier three times. At the time of this writing however, there has been no change in the frequency. The possibility of direct flights from New Delhi and Kolkata to Tel Aviv is also being pursued.

Skeptics and opponents
Given the 42 years of "non-history" of relations between the two countries since Israel's founding in May 1948, the "blossoming" of India-Israel ties has attracted its fair share of sceptics and opponents. Political parties (those belonging to the Left of the political spectrum as well as members of regional parties like the Samajwadi Party) apart from umbrella groups strongly opposed to Israeli policies on such issues like the Palestinians (Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) have been prominent critics of the strong growth. They have variedly charged Indian foreign policy of being unethical or blind-sided, among other deficiencies and have been urging a roll-back.

Such opposition has, however, not had the desired effect on the growth trajectory and momentum of the bilateral relationship so far. It is pertinent to note that while the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government initiated diplomatic ties, it was continued by a coalition government (the United Front during 1996 - 98), took wings, as it were, during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998 - 2004) and has continued to grow under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-I (UPA-I) and UPA-II governments.

India's foreign policy balance
A large part of the success in maintaining the momentum in ties rests on New Delhi's foreign policy interactions with Israel, which have been characterized by this author as "the delicate balance" (Strategic Analysis, IDSA/Routledge, January 2012). This refers to the political "discretion" exercised by India in its interactions with Israel, while playing down the strategic aspects of the relationship. No high-level political interactions have taken place between the two countries, barring the September 2003 visit of prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Foreign Minister S M Krishna's January 2012 visit was the first such visit after Jaswant Singh's July 2000 visit. India has on the other hand maintained robust political and economic contacts with the Palestinians as well as the prominent Arab countries in recent times. Such foreign policy practice has been mindful of the domestic opposition as well as India's own expressed divergence from Israeli policy positions on such issues like the Iranian nuclear programme.

Israel's public diplomacy
Israel on its part has tried hard to "polish its image" in India - as noted by a March 2008 US Embassy cable revealed by Wikileaks - by sponsoring trips to Israel of prominent Muslim religious/educational/political leaders, organizing seminars/exhibitions on Israeli life in prominent cities like Lucknow, and publishing newsletters in Hindi and Urdu, among other such outreach activities. The Israeli Ambassador Alon Ushpiz hosted an Iftar dinner for over 50 prominent Muslim personalities in August 2012. In 2010, the embassy hosted a similar feast in Amber.

To a certain extent, such Israeli outreach activities seem to be succeeding in molding public opinion. For instance, not much opposition was expressed at Krishna's January 2012 visit. A 2009 survey sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry, involving 5,200 people in 13 countries, reportedly ranked India as the most "pro-Israel country" in the world (58%), higher even than the United States (56%). The Israeli Embassy in June 2012 proudly noted that the "Israel in India" Facebook page has received over 20,000 "likes" since its launch in August 2010, a figure only surpassed by similar pages belonging to US and UK.

'Courting' the Indian states
Apart from the robust public diplomacy, an important Israeli strategy in recent times has been to reach out to the Indian states for developmental and business opportunities. Agriculture has been a prime focus area in this regard since 2006. The Israeli government's Action Plan 2008-2010 for agricultural collaboration focused on Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Indo-Israel Centre of Excellence for Vegetables was set up in Haryana in January 2011. The Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Company is another prominent Indo-Israeli joint venture.

The 2012-2015 Action Plan has been expanded to three more states Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Karnataka, apart from the four noted above. State Agriculture ministers apart from chef ministers are prominent participants in such Israeli networking and knowledge exhibitions like "Agritech". The Israelis are prominently looking for greater opportunities in such large and relatively economically well-off states like Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. An Israeli Consulate has recently started functioning in the hi-tech hub Bengaluru, an outcome of the then Foreign Minister Krishna's January 2012 visit to Israel.

Such active "courting" of Indian states by Israel takes advantage of India's increasingly assertive federal polity while seeking constructive partnerships. It is pertinent to note that governments belonging to different political parties are in power in some of these states where Israel is pursuing such opportunities. Such efforts to broad-base its activities in India beyond Delhi also provide it a cushion and "political cache" in a future coalition dispensation at the center which could have prominent regional players.

Such outreach to Indian states is of course not limited to Israel alone. It would obviously be the effort and duty of every other mission to reach out to as large a section of the country as possible to further their business interests. However, Israeli efforts are in many ways unique given the "non-history" of ties between India and Israel, regional political and security dynamics, controversial Israeli policies which generate significant domestic opposition to the relationship, and last but not the least, the strong security component in the bilateral framework.

Roses or thorns ahead?
As and when the currently being negotiated free trade agreement (FTA) is operationalized, both sides expect the volumes of trade to grow further. If it does grow beyond $10-15 billion as expected, then the relative weight of the defense component in bilateral ties will get reduced. Given India's huge modernization requirements, while Israel will continue to be an important supplier, other countries will increasingly bag bigger procurement contracts.

India, for instance, is getting 'big-ticket' multi-billion dollar equipment like fighter aircraft (the Rafale), maritime surveillance aircraft (Boeing), and troops transport aircraft (Boeing) from French and American companies. A relatively reduced defense footprint could add to the positive atmospherics, on top of Israel's increasing role in developmental initiatives.

Potential roadblocks that could affect the India-Israel relationship negatively going forward include possible large-scale Israeli military actions against the Palestinians, military strikes against Iran and unforeseen instances of corruption in defense deals. It is pertinent to note that some Israeli companies (Israel Military Industries) have been blacklisted by India's Defense Ministry on this account in the recent past.

Given the trajectory of positive growth that the relationship has witnessed in the past 21 years despite extant political differences on such issues like the Iran nuclear issue and the Palestinian issue, there is more scope for optimism as to the further growth of ties than otherwise. 

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