An Axis of Democracy?

An Axis of Democracy?

Mini Teaser: History kept India and Israel apart. But times have changed. Will strategic necessity keep them together?

by Author(s): Rajan MenonSwati Pandey

The transformation in the relationship between India and Israel, from one that was at best cool and correct to one that is now hailed as a strategic alignment is among the striking changes in the post-Cold War landscape. This shift has been widely praised, particularly by Israeli, Indian and American commentators. They believe that its potential significance extends well beyond the dense network of transactions that has developed between the two sides, and out across the entire region of South Asia and the Greater Middle East.

But the emerging relationship between the two countries has been followed by so much anticipation and excitement as to border on irrational exuberance. While it is true that India and Israel have indeed begun a new chapter in their history, it may not have the far-reaching consequences that many expect. Regardless, it is critical to come to a realistic understanding of the vital interests that will pull the two countries together--and those that will push them apart.

As recently as a decade ago, there was little optimism about an Indo-Israeli duet. Despite the commonplace proposition that democracies do not fight other democracies, it scarcely follows that democracies are also invariably well disposed toward each other. They are often not, and for several decades Exhibit A was the frosty relationship between two democracies born but a year apart, India and Israel.

Not until 1992, following the end of the Cold War, did India even grant Israel full diplomatic recognition. But that step set the stage for a flurry of transactions that rapidly recast their entire relationship. Almost every year thereafter, the two countries have signed mutual agreements: a cultural pact encouraging educational and other exchanges in 1993; an agricultural cooperation agreement that same year; telecommunications, trade and economic cooperation agreements in 1994, including the accordance of most favored nation status by both parties; a mutual promise in 1996 to promote and protect foreign investments; and a plan to avoid double taxation, practice custom cooperation and collaborate further on agriculture and technology.

Before, leaders from the two sides were rarely seen with one another. Now there is a cavalcade of high-level visits. In 1996, Israeli President Ezer Weizman became the first Israeli president to visit India. National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra began making regular trips to Israel beginning in 1998, laying the groundwork for expanded cooperation in the military and intelligence sphere. In 2000, Home Minister L. K. Advani traveled to Israel with the heads of India's intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, and he was followed in July by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. They were the highest-ranking Indian officials ever to visit Israel. While the new trajectory was often ascribed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition, the left-leaning Congress Party, which took power in May 2004, has not changed course. If anything, it has accelerated the pace of strategic cooperation with Israel.

Arms and More

It is in the area of national security--not trade and cultural exchanges--that the most dramatic and consequential transactions have occurred. Following the Soviet Union's implosion, India decided to replace its Soviet-dominated arsenal by diversifying its purchases. It began to see Israel, a major producer of modern weaponry, as an important potential supplier. Israel soon won many contracts to further India's military modernization. During the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, Israel rapidly dispatched to India a variety of weapons systems. All three branches of the Indian armed forces now rely on Israeli military technology, particularly aircraft and radars.

Israel has sold India two major weapons systems of particular importance. The first is Elta Electronics' Green Pine phased-array radar delivered in mid-2000, a key component of the controversial Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system, which can detect incoming missiles from hundreds of kilometers away. Because the radar was developed without U.S. technology, Israel was able to sell it without U.S. permission. The second major deal, worth $1.1 billion, was the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System, which India plans to integrate with its Russian Il-76 heavy transport aircraft. This was a different matter altogether, because it was developed with U.S. technology, and Washington had blocked Israel's planned sale of the system to China in 1998. But after some debate, the United States, which was developing a new appreciation of India's strategic worth, approved Israel's sale of the Phalcon to India in 2003.

Such arms deals bring obvious advantages to both sides. India gains access to critical high-tech weaponry that weighs the military balance with Pakistan in its favor. And co-production agreements with Israel further India's long-standing goal to create a robust, indigenous complex of defense industries with the ultimate aim of reaching near self-sufficiency. Quite apart from the money generated by Indian military purchases, the orders create economies of scale, which is important to Israel given its small armed forces.

Several additional billion-dollar defense deals are in the works for the coming years, and they are likely to make Israel one of India's biggest arms suppliers, and India Israel's biggest market. Furthermore, the prospects for continued Israeli arms sales could also be brightened by parallel cooperation on related fronts. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recently released defense budget increases spending on acquisitions and equipment, and the first ever joint air force exercise is planned for later this year. Regular intelligence cooperation, anti-insurgency training and joint exercises are in place, and joint working groups on terrorism, technology and other areas have been organized.

In fact, on the very day of the 9/11 attacks, the two countries' national security advisors were together, discussing a joint security strategy. Within months, there was a bloody illustration of the common threat: India's Parliament was attacked by Kashmiri militants, and 14 people were killed. In the wake of these major attacks, two visits to India by leading Israeli politicians proved to be successes and generated far less opposition in India than might have been expected. Then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres arrived in 2002, only months after the Parliament attack. As if to drive home the point, on the two-year anniversary of 9/11, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon toured India with a delegation of 150 that was greeted by members of both the BJP and the Congress Party. At the conclusion of that visit, the two countries signed a joint declaration condemning terrorism and countries that aid and abet it. That same year, National Security Advisor Mishra made a much-publicized address to the American Jewish Committee about the necessity for cooperation among democracies--namely India, Israel and the United States--against global terrorism. Given this context, it was hardly surprising that India's rhetoric on Israel changed dramatically in all forums, including the United Nations, even if its votes remained neutral or pro-Arab.

The new alignment will certainly face some rough weather down the road, which is why it will require sources of stability beyond mere arms sales. These additional buffers and supports are, however, gradually emerging--and they will help in several respects. Both sides will acquire a bigger stake in preventing a rupture, thanks to what in economic jargon are called "sunk costs." Moreover, public opinion should warm to the entente (and hostility from critics should dissipate) as the benefits become tangible, and powerful organizations and lobbies within each country that gain from the expansion of economic and military contacts should rally support for the new relationship in times of trouble.

Public opinion and tangible public benefit are what make the non-military side of the equation important. Trade, which is certainly part of it, has soared. In only a decade, the volume has grown from $202 million in 1992 to $1.4 billion in 2004. While the latter figure is small by global standards, the liberalization of India's trade policies and the economic complementarities between India and Israel augur well for further momentum. Likewise, with the opening of India's economy to foreign investment, Israeli firms should find many opportunities in India's vast market and thus many reasons to become boosters of the new partnership. Thanks to the flow of contacts between senior Indian and Israeli military and intelligence personnel and key policymakers, and the exchanges within the joint working groups on defense cooperation and counter-terrorism, a shared strategic outlook encompassing means and ends is taking shape, albeit slowly. Thus, a wide and multiform network is emerging. If it succeeds in making cooperation deeper and broader, India and Israel will have more than a ledger of weapons sales to hold on to in rough times.

A Fresh Start

India and Israel have been in separate orbits for most of their histories. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, shaped the young country's foreign policy around the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of countries that purported to have no allegiance to either superpower and considered Israel a colonial settler state. Nonetheless, Israel accepted the logic of non-alignment, or as it dubbed its parallel policy, non-identification, even sending the director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet Nehru in 1950. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, sought cooperative relations with states on the outer perimeter of Israel's immediate neighborhood, prompting Israel to seek Indian recognition in the early postwar years. But while many states recognized Israel soon after it declared statehood in 1948, India delayed until 1950 while concurrently trying to win agricultural assistance from Israel, the type of equivocation that would mark decades of Indian policy to come. To lend logic to this curious approach, India devised the tortured formulation that it recognized the Israeli state, if not its borders.

Despite the high ideals of non-alignment and non-identification, the global context of the Cold War determined the policies of India and Israel toward each other, generally for the worse, as the former increasingly became aligned with the Soviet Union, and the latter with the United States. During the 1956 Suez War, for example, India publicly condemned Israel. Five years later, Israel would refuse to praise India's takeover of the Portuguese colony of Goa. But the aftermath of the Six-Day War proved most controversial: Israeli tanks fired on Indian troops serving as UN peacekeepers in Gaza, killing fourteen. Outrage swept through India, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi condemned the incident as "wanton, deliberate and without provocation."

India's wars with Pakistan had a somewhat different effect on the relationship. During the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, Israel covertly supplied India with arms, despite Pakistan's alliance with the United States, by then Israel's foremost benefactor. Moreover, Israel reportedly continued to provide intelligence and military support from then onward, no doubt to offset Chinese support for Pakistan, one of Israel's leading non-Arab antagonists. However minor this cooperation may have been, and despite the tumultuous period to come under Indira Gandhi (climaxing with India's friendship pact with the Soviet Union and its support of the "Zionism is racism" UN resolution), it provided a small foundation for the strategic alignment underway.

Once the Soviet colossus collapsed, however, it took with it the conceptual and operational underpinnings of India's national security strategy. India was quick to understand that the new international landscape both enabled and necessitated a new approach to the world, in particular a re-evaluation of past policies toward the United States and Israel. Although India's economic liberalization brought the country closer to the United States and Israel, the rationale for intensifying cooperation among the three countries became all the more clear after the attacks of 9/11 and the assault on India's parliament.

The new cordiality between India and the United States cleared the way for a fresh start between India and Israel. Indeed, given Israel's dependence on the United States, it would not have redefined its policy toward India independently, certainly not to the point of cooperation on critical matters of national security. India similarly sees the United States as the more consequential state while still realizing that cooperation with Israel would help promote U.S.-Indian relations, not least because of the influence of pro-Israeli groups in America who champion military and intelligence cooperation among the three countries.

But the shift in India's policy toward Israel was by no means solely the by-product of its larger aim of strengthening ties with the United States. India sees specific advantages in ramping up cooperation with Israel. Nor is Israel merely mimicking the American post-Cold War shift toward India; it has its own reasons to seek a new beginning. This said, because the alignment between India and Israel touches on sensitive issues (particularly the sale to India of U.S. defense technology), it would have been all but unimaginable had India and the United States remained imprisoned in the past.

Changes Within

The Indian-Israeli strategic convergence stems not just from new international circumstances but from internal conditions as well. In Israel the rise in suicide bombings that accompanied the second intifada, the increasing threat posed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the rise of Al-Qaeda made life for ordinary Israelis dangerous as never before. Pakistan, always a source of concern, looked even more dangerous: It had acquired nuclear weapons in 1998 (hard on the heels of India) and was brimming with militant Muslim organizations hostile to Israel. Israel was on the lookout for allies that were also menaced by militant Islam and terrorism. It did not have to look far.

Meanwhile, a momentous change occurred in India. In 1998 the Congress Party--long associated with social democracy, non-alignment, anti-colonialism and an arms-length approach to Israel--lost its lock on Indian politics to the Hindu nationalist BJP coalition. Important personalities within the coalition were longtime advocates of friendship with Israel. Many BJP leaders in particular had long viewed the Congress's support for the Arabs as a product of its pusillanimous sensitivity to India's Muslims, who, as they saw it, should be made to accept that India was a Hindu homeland (Hindutva).

BJP nationalists also believed that India had gained little from its reflexive support for Arab states in their battles with Israel, and that when push came to shove, the Arabs would always support Pakistan's position on Kashmir, regardless of India's Muslim population. BJP leaders were also prepared to move beyond the Congress's tentative post-Cold War efforts to reshape India's relationship with the United States. As they saw it, that relationship was second to none in importance, given India's goals of liberalizing its highly regulated economy, diversifying its sources of arms, promoting India's high-tech sectors and attracting investment. Israel, America's ally in all but name, was seen as a worthy partner for the same reasons.

This is not to say that the new India-Israel relationship is vulnerable to electoral vagaries. The Congress Party, which regained power in 2004, has pushed cooperation with Israel forward, rather than paring it back. Prominent Congress leaders who decried the partnership as a betrayal of Indian ideals now find themselves in power, and pragmatism has trumped principle. The Far Left may be unhappy with the new friendship, but its ability to shape the direction of Indian foreign policy is limited. It has not seized on the Israeli connection to remind the Congress government that without the Left's support, the coalition will fall. Furthermore, India's strategic cooperation has generated little opposition among Indian Muslims. Indeed, one of the lessons of the India-Israel alignment is that India's Muslims by and large assess India's national security policy on its own merits, not reflexively based on whether it serves the interests of a wider Muslim world.

On the Israeli side, were Labor to regain power, there would not necessarily be a dramatic departure from current policy toward India. For one thing, Labor would face the same strategic context. For another, Labor has hardly been squeamish about pursuing tough-minded, practical national security policies. There is nothing that a Labor government would regard as detrimental and much that it would see as beneficial. The domestic setting is far less fraught for Israeli leaders than for their Indian counterparts, and Israel lacks an ideological legacy that makes a shift in policy as difficult. What is more, the practical advantages are obvious: Israel has few powerful friends outside the West, and the strategic and economic gains of cooperating with India are clear.

Converging Interests

The dynamics of two extended regions, southwest Asia and South Asia, could make for a convergence of Indian and Israeli strategic interests. Just what comes of the alignment between India and Israel will hinge on how long-lasting the common challenges are in these regions, how effectively both sides grasp the opportunities for cooperation and how adroit each is in dealing with the inevitable jolts that will have to be endured along the way.

The first of these regions encompasses Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and the Arab countries. India and Israel are the flanking powers of this region and see a number of common dangers within it--ones that could move fluidly across borders. Economic shocks and radical Islamist movements could radiate from an epicenter created by the fragmentation of a weak state, most notably Pakistan, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is a net minus for the safety of India and Israel, not only if it coheres and grows, but also--perhaps more so--if it disintegrates as a result of Pakistan's implosion or if Pakistani fissile material falls into the hands of terrorist organizations. Afghanistan remains an uncertain bet despite many encouraging trends, and its unsettled fate also draws India and Israel together. Both understand that the tenuous situation in Afghanistan rests less on solid institutions and an effective state than on Hamid Karzai--an admirable figure, but one who lives in a hazardous environment. Karzai's overthrow or assassination could bring back all of Afghanistan's demons quickly and pave the way for the return of the Taliban, which remains a dogged force.

Israel and India are also worried about the dangers of American over-extension. Stable democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan would improve security prospects for both India and Israel, which are observing events there warily and closely. But, should the United States enter a new conflict on the Korean Peninsula or in Iran, America's resources for coping with Iraq and Afghanistan will diminish, putting the democracy projects at risk.

The fall of the House of Saud could also create trouble. While Saudi Arabia has been no friend to Israel, the relevant question is what would follow a revolution there. Almost certainly, there would be a new Saudi regime with an even more viscerally anti-Israeli policy. Meanwhile, the dangers of prolonged anarchy in the Gulf are self-evident and still more frightening. India, for its part, is heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil and will become all the more so given its surging economy. The thousands of Indian expatriate laborers who live in the Gulf could also become vulnerable. And the technology of the modern age is bringing ever closer militant Kashmiri secessionists and their kindred spirits abroad.

Both countries are also increasingly aware of the dangers that each faces from instability in Central Asia. Sheer proximity--along with New Delhi's determination to challenge Chinese and Pakistani influence and to cultivate Central Asia as an export market and a source of energy--has made Central Asia of growing significance to India. India's stake in Central Asia's future exceeds Israel's, but Tel Aviv sees the region as another location where terrorism and militant Islam could become entrenched.

There is also an asymmetry of interests when it comes to South Asia. Here, India has more at stake--and thus more to gain--from a joint approach. But this fact gives Tel Aviv leverage to elicit Indian cooperation in areas that matter more to Israel. The western edge of this region runs along the Ganges River and ends at the Line of Control that divides Indian- and Pakistani-held Kashmir. The eastern flank runs from Hokkaido down to the Strait of Malacca, and the southern extremity is formed by the Bay of Bengal. This vast zone is increasingly becoming the arena for a contest between India and China, rising powers that have distinct strategic visions and several divergent interests. This hardly means that war will be the terminal point, as both sides are focused on economic growth, easing tensions and widening the circle of cooperation. Nevertheless, one does not have to spend much time with Indian and Chinese strategists to see that each country regards the other as an adversary and that both anticipate that this feeling will intensify.

Despite economic reforms, rapid growth rates, a new geopolitical strategy and recent efforts to diversify its sources of weapons, India is far weaker than China in just about any traditional measure of power. These strategic circumstances make for two Indian objectives with respect to Israel. The first is to gain access to Israeli weapons and defense technology that improve Indian military capabilities. The second involves India supplanting China as the principal destination for Israeli arms sales and military technology by making significant purchases of both, increasing trade and investment ties with Israel so that it develops a growing stake in the Indian relationship and banking on the United States to limit Israeli military sales to China.

Whether India will also pursue the goal of limiting or ideally even eliminating the movement of Israeli arms to China by making itself more central to Israeli needs in southwest Asia--despite the risks involved in doing so--remains to be seen, for that is a path laden with minefields. Indeed, India's ability to achieve these goals will depend at least as much on the pace of Chinese military modernization and on America's assessment of China's power and purpose as on the future of the India-Israel alignment. Furthermore, it is one thing for Israel to switch from China to India as its main market for arms exports and quite another to engage in a sustained and practical policy that supplements Indian objectives in South Asia. That would amount to focusing Israel's attention and assets on an area that is hardly crucial to its national security.

Dialing Down the Hype

India and Israel have reframed their relationship in a strikingly short stretch of time. Yet, it is hardly the case that the new partnership, which its proponents in India, Israel and the United States tend to depict with breathless optimism, will necessarily have the staying power required to have far-reaching strategic significance. To begin with, it has yet to be tested: There has not been a controversy or crisis in which the two sides have really been forced to reckon with the complications or costs of their nascent strategic convergence.

Furthermore, India and Israel still face obstacles in moving from recognizing common dangers in southwest Asia to actually implementing joint policies in that space. Iran is a good example. India does not share the Israeli (and American) view of Iran as a dangerous state that must be contained and isolated. It conducts extensive trade with Iran, maintains high-level political contacts, aids Iran's space program and is actively exploring a $4 billion energy pipeline that would link India and Iran via Pakistan. Both Israel and the United States are opposed to the pipeline project, but there is no sign that India will abandon it, let alone participate in a combined strategy against Iran. Nor has India allowed its friendship with Israel to displace its well-established relationship with Syria. The upshot is that India will not join the United States and Israel in any long-term, overt strategy to curb terrorism and militant strains of Islam in the Middle East or to quarantine, much less attack, Syria. Nor will it deploy its troops to help keep order in Iraq. Such ventures would be unpopular at home and create an anti-Indian political backlash abroad. Setting such expectations will have an inevitable result: Israel and the United States will feel let down, and India will feel put upon by demands it sees as unreasonable.

For its part, Israel has sought recognition from Pakistan, no doubt realizing that the new circumstances might make Pakistan receptive and punch another hole in what it has seen as a wall of Muslim solidarity against it. Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf has created an opening. In June 2004, no doubt in response to the growing strategic cooperation between India and Israel, Musharraf made the controversial suggestion that Islamabad should consider adjusting its attitude toward the Jewish state, despite strong opposition to Israel among Pakistan's Islamic parties.

For Israel, India's chief value is as a prospective partner in southwest Asia. But it does not follow that Israel has compelling reasons, or indeed much capability, to further Indian objectives in South Asia (other than reducing arms sales to China). A significant rethinking of Israeli national security that extends its scope into that region is not easily defensible in terms of Israeli interests, nor feasible given Israel's resources and priorities.

The mere fact that the United States appears to have blessed the Israel-India union also does not ensure substantive cooperation in either of these two regions. And one should not discount the eagerness with which American defense companies are eyeing the lucrative Indian market. Once American defense industries begin to enter the Indian market, Israel's value as an arms supplier could diminish in Indian eyes. Though not inevitable, it is worth keeping in mind at a time when news reports and academic essays trumpet the India-Israel alignment. Moreover, if from New Delhi's standpoint the road to Washington runs through Tel Aviv, what will happen when India reaches its desired destination? What will be the residual value of the Israeli connection, especially given the hazards India could encounter should it join forces with Israel in southwest Asia?

These questions will be easier to answer if the current expansion of the India-Israel relationship continues beyond mere arms sales. The more that high-level political, security and economic links expand, the greater will be the incentive on both sides to deal with the complications that accompany joint action in the two regions identified above. The democratic systems of both countries are also a plus. By creating transparency and allowing for multifarious exchanges and contacts, they can help provide an intangible, but vital ingredient for strategic concord: trust.

The events that could put at risk further cooperation between India and Israel on military and strategic issues will not emerge from within the two countries, but from the world beyond. Two are of particular importance. One is a major conflagration in one country's neighborhood that puts India and Israel on different sides, or exposes a chasm between the envisaged strategic alignment and reality. The second is a deterioration of India's relationship with the United States. The first scenario is far more likely than the second.

Both friends and foes of the alignment between India and Israel see it as an important development. Only once this much ballyhooed entente faces trials that require tough tradeoffs will we know whether it will be limited to mutual gains provided by arms sales and the flow of commerce. Such exchanges would still put India and Israel on a new road, but they will not amount to a strategic partnership that could change the balance of power in pivotal regions. For now, the safe bet is that the collaboration between India and Israel will meet the expectations of neither its foremost proponents nor its most fervent critics.

Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Swati Pandey is a research associate at the New America Foundation.

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