The Indian-Israeli partnership

The rapprochement between India and Israel is an important component of a new strategic landscape in the greater Middle East that includes Central Asia and parts of the Indian Ocean littoral.

The two countries discovered affinity in outlook on their regional disputes and a common strategic agenda. Generally, the two states exhibit a resemblance in strategic culture, entertaining similar notions about behavior during armed conflict. Indians and Israelis display extremely high levels of threat perception, as they feel beleaguered in their region. Both states waged several major conventional wars against their neighbors and have faced limited armed incursions and terror.

The current source of threat to the two nations is similar–the radical offshoots of Islam in the greater Middle East. India regards parts of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia in particular, as a hub for Islamic extremism. Moreover, this threat is felt closer to home regarding Saudi-Pakistani relations, which India views with suspicion. For Israel, the Islamic radicals in the Arab world and in the Islamic Republic of Iran constitute a constant security challenge. Moreover, religious extremism energizes residual Arab enmity toward the Jewish state. The combination of Iran’s fanatic hatred and nuclear potential especially constitutes an existential threat. The Pakistani nuclear arsenal is similarly viewed in New Delhi as being in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic radicals.

The September 11, 2001 attacks, and the ensuing war against international terror appear to have created a political climate even more conducive to Indo-Israeli collaboration. India has become an important market for Israel’s military industries. An array of Israeli missiles, radars, communications equipment, ships and guns have been added to the Indian arsenal. Israeli firms bid for additional defense contracts in India and military industrial cooperation is progressing.

The links between Jerusalem and New Delhi seem to be stable beyond an ephemeral convergence of their interests as sellers and buyers in the arms bazaar. The relationship has wide geostrategic implications beyond the strength it gives these two regional powers. It solidifies the Arab nations’ reluctant acceptance of Israel as a fait accompli, which is predicated upon a strong Israel. India, an important international actor, is no longer unequivocally on the Arab side. The diplomatic traffic generated by the relationship between Jerusalem and New Delhi also strengthens the links among West, Central and South Asia, giving enhanced credence to the notion of the Greater Middle East.

The Indian-Israeli nexus has various Indian Ocean implications. Israel’s main strategic concern after the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 is Iran, along the shores of the Indian Ocean. Israel developed already in the nineties the capability to project long-distance (greater than 1,500 km) air and naval power, procuring from the United States long-range aircraft. Israel also built an ocean-going navy and its Saar-5 corvettes have been seen in the Indian Ocean. The three new Israeli submarines are equipped with long-range cruise missile launching capability. One such missile was tested in the Indian Ocean, generating reports about Indian-Israeli naval cooperation. Generally, the Israeli strategic community is increasingly interested in the sea, both to provide depth and for the deployment of a submarine-based nuclear second-strike force.

Pakistan’s missile and nuclear weapon technologies are of concern not only to India, but also to Israel. Pakistani plans to become a supplier of intermediate-range missiles for such countries as Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, with the Saudis playing a major role in financing such deals, are of concern in Jerusalem and New Delhi. Israeli fears focus primarily on the seepage of nuclear technologies, with governmental authorization or as a rogue operation.

Pakistan is equally concerned by Israel’s relations with India, which probably serve as a catalyst for intensifying the intra-Pakistani debate over establishing ties with Israel. President Pervez Musharraf has made several calls for public discussion of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, noting that other Arab and Muslim countries have done so. The Jewish state, with no end in sight to its conflict with the Palestinians, is equally interested in normalizing its relations with important Muslim states. Cordial relations with a populous Muslim country such as Pakistan could, like the improved Israeli-Turkish relations, help dilute the Islamic dimension in the Arab-Israel conflict.

India has long-standing strategic and cultural links to energy-rich and newly accessible Central Asia, which it describes as its “extended strategic neighborhood,” and where it jockeys with rivals China and Pakistan for influence. Israel is equally interested in this new part of the “greater Middle East.” Like India, Israel sells military equipment to Central Asian states and has a modest diplomatic and business presence there. Both Israel and India aim to limit the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the agents for radical Islamization. They prefer the presence of secular Turkey and hope the Central Asian states will emulate the Turkish model rather than the Iranian. Both states also want the flow of oil and gas there to be unimpeded by instability. While there may be differences over the direction of planned pipelines, India and Israel are in agreement as to the desirability of low-energy prices. India’s economy needs them, while in Israel’s assessment low prices reduce the influence of the Arab world.

Indian-Israeli cooperation is also valuable in the US-led war on terrorism. This is an important reason for Washington to lend support to the Jerusalem-New Delhi entente, similar to the American involvement in Israeli-Turkish relations, while allaying as much as possible Pakistani fears. Washington has good grounds to encourage Indian-Israeli cooperation, as its own interests in the Indian Ocean will likely grow. The Indian Ocean has gained in geopolitical importance as a number of issues, including weapons of mass destruction, Islamic radicalism, terrorism, and narcotrafficking converge on its littoral. In addition, Washington should capitalize on the Indian-Israeli entente to promote closer cooperation among the Asian democracies, which face comparable security challenges–terrorism, ballistic missiles, and WMD–from US rivals. Turkey, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea are prime potential additions to Israel and India in such a comprehensive security architecture.