The Shaping of an Israeli-Indian Strategic Partnership


2014-02-23 By Maj General (Retd) PK Chakravorty

Israel and India India are intense strategic partners.

Both countries were created at approximately the same time and despite different perceptions have all along been reliable partners. The creation of Israel was opposed by Mahatma Gandhi but the erstwhile Jansangh (present Bharatiya Janta Party) recognized as a friend right from its inception.

India after gaining independence championed the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ and the main leaders were Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Tito of erstwhile Yugoslavia and Jawaharlal Nehru of India.

To the contrary Israel was firmly wedded to the Western powers and posed a problem for overt relations with India.

 Militarily Israel always looked at India as a partner against Islamic terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Reports indicate that Israel supplied heavy mortars and ammunition to India through European outlets prior to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Further, Israel has been concerned about acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and would not hesitate to take military action if presented an opportunity. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw the end of the Cold War and the beginning of multiple relationships between countries.

The Indian economy was opened up and this saw new relationships being developed with countries having high technology.

Official relations were opened between the two countries and there after they have become strategic partners in the region.

Political Relationship

India gained independence on August 15, 1947. On November, 29, 1947 a resolution was passed by the United Nations General Assembly that Palestine would be partitioned and the Jews would have a homeland in the partitioned state. On May 14, 1948 David Ben Gurion declared the independence of Israel and on May 16, 1948 the only Jewish majority state was formed. The moment the country was formed the Arabs declared war while Israel stabilized her boundaries.

While the French and American press has focused quite naturally on the possibilities of growing defense trade with India, the Israelis have quite literally delivered the goods. Credit Image: Bigstock
While the French and American press has focused quite naturally on the possibilities of growing defense trade with India, the Israelis have quite literally delivered the goods. Credit Image: Bigstock

India, after its independence, adopted a foreign policy which was pro Arab and anti Israel. The reason was first of all India’s need for oil and gas for development as also to win Arab support in the Organization for Islamic countries (OIC).

Further our foreign policy emphasized on nonalignment in which Israel which was a Western block ally and did not fit in. Therefore we continued to support the Arabs during the 1967 and 1973 Arab Israeli wars. Covertly Israel always maintained friendly relations but it was only after the Gulf War in 1991 that India realized the need to be pragmatic in dealing with foreign countries and this is the time when gears were changed and India commenced her political relationship with Israel.

There were numerous factors responsible for this shift in India’s foreign policy. In 1991 the Soviet Union had broken up and Russia failed to support Iraq during the attack by US forces and Kuwait. Further the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 bringing an end to the Cold War.

More than 70 per cent of India’s defense equipment came from the Soviet Union and it was extremely difficult to ensure spares and maintenance of the equipment was undertaken with assurance from the 15 newly formed sovereign republics.

India knew that Israel had captured Soviet equipment during the 1967 war. Further Israel had developed upgrades and spares for all these equipment.

It was in India’s defense interest to collaborate with Israel.

The main issues for friendship with the Arab countries were twofold: the guaranteed availability of oil and backing of the OIC on the Kashmir issue. In June 1990 the price of oil dropped to an all time low of $14 to a barrel. And despite India’s request all Arab countries in the OIC voted against India with regard to the Kashmir issue.

To top it all Gulf War in 1990 demonstrated the superiority of Western weaponry vis a vis Soviet systems.

There was a need to modernize Indian Armed Forces and possibly the route of seeking assistance from Israel appeared viable. All these issues made the Indian Government to rethink and move from a philosophical foreign policy to a pragmatic foreign policy.

The Indian Government during this period moved from democratic socialism to an open economy in which public sector was gradually disinvested, the Non-Aligned Movement was no longer the cornerstone of our foreign policy and there was replacement of idealism by pragmatism.

India soon realized that her Area of Interest included the Straits of Hormuz, Suez Canal and Bab el Mandab.

The change in India’s vision and its desire to emerge as a strong nation, naturally led her to open diplomatic relations with Israel.

In February 1992 Israel opened its Embassy in New Delhi and in May 1992 India opened its Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The opening of diplomatic relations saw a strategic partnership between the two countries.

Leaders, people and soldiers developed an affectionate bond which transformed both these countries in all spheres. Two decades have elapsed since the opening of diplomatic relations and the relationship has prospered due to democratic traditions, similar judicial systems, ease of communicating in the English language and exchange of technical and industrial knowledge. The relationship has been strengthened by the presence of 70,000 Indian Jews in Israel and frequent visits by the youth of Israel who are fascinated by India.

The strengthened political relationship has resulted in enhanced economic cooperation between the two countries.

In 1992 the primary trade between the two countries was diamonds and amounted to about $200 million. Currently the two-way trade between India and Israel is $5.15 billion. The major exports from India to Israel comprise of precious stones, metals, chemical products, textiles, plants, vegetable products, rubber, plastics and machinery. The imports from Israel are jewelry, machinery, transport and defense equipment.

Further a Free Trade Agreement is currently being negotiated between the two countries. The present Foreign Direct Investment inflows from Israel to India in the last decade is $53.24 million which though small quantitatively but is directed at important sectors like renewable energy, telecommunications, real estate and water technologies.

Israel has signed bilateral agreements for assisting in agriculture. Though located in desert terrain, fruit and vegetables are grown by innovative methods, thereby enabling Israel to export fruits and vegetables globally. Currently Israel is setting up centers of excellence for fruits at Sirsa (Haryana) and vegetables at Karnal (Haryana). Further Israel is providing us technologies related to water conservation, desalination, wastewater management and micro irrigation. Multifarious cooperation between the two countries has resulted in an international survey finding in 2006 that Israel is the most popular country in India.

Defense Cooperation

One of the main reasons for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 was driven by the potential in defense cooperation.

Israel has a state-of-the-art defense industry and is willing to cooperate with India in all spheres of defense activities.

In March 1994, Israel’s Research and Development Chief visited India. This was followed by the visit of our Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri visiting Israel in 1996. Israel was willing to assist India in all areas of defense activities. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia still consolidating her position, India was fortunate to have Israel as a dependable strategic partner.

Barak 8 missile. Credit: India Strategic
Barak 8 missile. Credit: India Strategic

In December 1996, President Ezer Weizman, accompanied by a 24 member business delegation visited India. After the visit Israel offered India technical cooperation in matters related to military aircraft, reverse engineering and the upgrading of weapon systems.

India posted her first Defense Attaché in 1997 and this paved the way for enhanced defense cooperation between the two countries.

In 1996 India purchased an Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) which was established at Air Force Station Jamnagar. Thereafter two Dvora patrol boats were procured for the Indian Navy at a cost of $10 million.

In the same period Tadiran provided state-of-the-art frequency hopping radio sets to the Indian Army, ELOP provided the Long Range Observation Reconnaissance System, Soltam in conjunction with Ordnance Factory Board agreed to upgrade the 130 mm Gun. Elta was to upgrade the avionics of the MiG-21 fighters and finally negotiations were on for the sale of Barak-1 missiles to the Indian Navy.

The strengthening of defense relations moved into a higher trajectory by the election of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which governed India from 1998 to 2004. For the first time a pragmatic defense engagement began with Israel. While India supported the Palestinians at the United Nations, defense procurements continued with Israel.

The zenith of this relationship was during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when Israel was willing to provide us surveillance equipment and precision weapons on a fast track. They were willing to provide us Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), state-of-the-art night vision devices and laser-guided bombs.

This brought in a new dimension of the reliability of Israel providing technology during a conflict when all other countries deny technology till hostilities are over.

This has seen the defense relationship move from strength to strength even with the introduction of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government in 2004.

As stated Israel has been cooperative in selling defense equipment and sharing critical technology, which has enabled us to gradually, modernize our Armed Forces.

An exposition into the major defense issues with Israel being optimized are as reported in the open domain.

Israel has emerged as the second biggest defense supplier to India after Russia.

India has received three Phalcon AWACS mounted on the IL-76 aircraft. India has acquired two Aerostats which have been deployed on the Western border along with Long-range EL/M-2083 radars. Further, the three services have acquired the Searcher and Heron UAVs for surveillance.

The Air Defense aspect caters for procuring two major weapon systems.

First is the Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MR-SAM). This missile will protect installations against aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles.

The second involves the SPYDER Air Defense a short range Air Defense System with a range of 25km.

Both these systems are being procured from Rafael and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). In April 2009 India launched its RISAT-2 reconnaissance satellite. The satellite was initially presented as purely for civilian purposes but it soon became clear that it was designed for military uses. The satellite carries a Synthetic Aperture Radar system made in Israel and is believed to be providing credible results. IAI has completed upgrading India’s MI 24/35 attack helicopters. Further there is a project to upgrade the An-32 aircraft. It is pertinent to add that the Indian Air Force has reportedly acquired the HAROP loitering missile which can engage targets with pin-point accuracies at ranges more than 200 km.

The defense procurements from Israel in the last decade have exceeded $10 billion.

As a matter of fact there are only two countries, which are willing to provide state-of-the-art technology to our country Russia and Israel.

As a matter of fact there are many joint ventures, which are coming up between India and Israel for the MR-SAM as also between Tata and ELTA who have formed a company known as HBL ELTA Avionics System Limited.

Israel has given us tremendous assistance with regard to intelligence and counter terrorism. The formation of RAW and NSG received tremendous guidance from Israel. The Homeland techniques used by Israel are state-of-the-art and they have willingly assisted us in these fields.

Current Status

Our relations received a fillip by the visit of the erstwhile Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne in January 2013. The visit focused on UAVs and Israel’s Air-to-Air missile.

During the middle of last year India and Israel discussed options regarding Transfer of Technology for the Iron Dome which has 80 per cent effectiveness against the Nasr missiles fired by the Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. In November 2013, Major General Guy Zur, Chief of the Ground Forces Command visited India and had fruitful discussions with regard to defense cooperation. India was keen to buy and co-develop the Spike missile.

Further Israel would team up with DRDO to produce high tech systems related to command and control, battlefield management, sensors and weapons at an estimated cost of $3 billion.

Further, an additional joint development program for an advanced mobile observation system designed for infantry soldiers.

In addition to these the Joint Venture between DRDO and IAI to develop and to produce the MR-SAM and LR-SAM Barrack 8 missiles for the Navy and Air Force are on track and should be ready for the Navy by 2015 and for the Air Force by 2017.

Relations between the two countries also received a shot in the arm as the Indian Ministry of Defence approved a deal for procurement of 262 Barak-1 missiles at an estimated cost of $143 million. Further, the Cabinet Committee on Security has approved procurement of nearly 15 Heron UAVs to bolster our reconnaissance capability.

The United States has been trying to sell the Javelin anti-tank missile with full technology. This is a competitor to the Spike, which is currently under negotiations.

Israel is apprehensive of resumption of defense cooperation between Iran and India after ratification of the current nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 countries on January 20, 2014. As of now, nothing untoward has occurred to unnerve Israel.

Israel and Russia are the only two countries that are providing technology to India.

Accordingly their friendship needs to be strengthened.


India and Israel are natural strategic partners and must cooperate with each other to strengthen their defense relationship. The ongoing modernization process is being ably assisted by Israel to ensure speedy operational readiness.

Reprinted with the permission of our partner India Strategic.