Is Benny Gantz’s India Travel a Preparatory Visit to Formalize Defence Ties?

 By Dr. Manjari Singh
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India and Israel commemorated 30 years of their diplomatic relations in January. To mark the tricennial, in a follow-up, Israel’s Prime Minister and its defense minister had announced their respective visits in March; however, their arrival got delayed on account of the former contracting COVID-19 and the latter had to postpone his trip amidst growing terror attacks in his country.

While arrival dates for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett are yet not released; in a rescheduled itinerary, Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrived in New Delhi on 1 June for a three-day official visit. Gantz’s recent visit is generally touted as no different from his earlier scheduled one in March. Several media reports suggest that the Israeli Minister’s visit is a symbolic gesture aimed at customary signing of Letter of Intent (LoI) to revise defense deals between the two countries. For the unversed, as per the latest SIPRI report, Israel accounts for 8.48 per cent of India’s total arms imports and the Jewish nation is its fourth largest supplier after Russia (46 per cent), France (27 per cent) and the US (12 per cent).[i] Given this crucial transactional arms purchase, the LoI is primarily aimed to extend and revise defense contracts based on market values acceptable to both the parties.

In the recent past, Indo-Israeli defense ties have transcended from arms transactions to defense partnerships. Israel has been actively involved in India’s defense indigenization drive under the Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliance) format. This includes co-production and upgradation of defense items as well as technology transfer and its sharing. Transfer of technology being the unique selling point in the relations. In that context, the Defense Minister’s emphasis on signing a ‘special security declaration’ during his visit, hints towards greater objectives being planned than mere revision of deals.

To top it, significant indicators such as: for starters, celebrating tricennial of relations seems over the top. While it is customary for countries to celebrate silver, golden, and diamond jubilees, commemorating 30 years is rarely heard of unless it is aimed at accelerating engagements or adding a new dimension to the existing relations. Two, the timing of the visit (both with regard to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis and the short time span between the postponed visit and the rescheduled one); three,  the semantics used to describe the aim of the visit (referring to ‘special security declaration’); four, changing geopolitical situation within the Middle East and globally (Abraham Accords, growing Chinese and Russian aggression and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict)[ii]; five, India’s adversarial concerns and its increasing national security aspirations; and finally, New Delhi’s shift from an ideologically motivated pro-Arab stance to a pragmatic foreign policy option, suggests that Gantz’s arrival may be more than a symbolic visit.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is culminating into Russia’s diplomatic isolation which in the coming times will have a negative impact on its strategic partners in the likelihood of removal of trade waivers. Given Russia’s lion’s share in Indian arms imports, Indian defense pundits have been propagating on source diversification for arms purchase and have put greater emphasis on indigenization. While the latter is a time-consuming process, Israel could be a viable option in meeting the former requirement to some extent.

Israel’s Prime Ministerial visit is impending and, in that context, Gantz’s travel plans seem like a preparatory visit that is aimed towards probable formalization of earlier discussed but not institutionalized defense deals.  Spending three-days in the capital suggests that Gantz is likely to meet military top brasses in the country to discuss mutual areas of cooperation. A meeting with the National Security Advisor is also possible given the latter performed a similar recce in 2017 before PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel (it is confirmed today that a meeting with the NSA is taking place in the evening).   Needless to mention, formalization of relations becomes crucial as it will contribute towards greater synergy between the nations especially in the defense and security sector, one of the major bedrocks of the relations.

Due to security considerations, defence related engagements do not get much publicized. In the Indo-Israeli context, for a very long time, political dimensions also contributed towards that inhibition. Informally and faintly acknowledged, India-Israel defense relation pre-dates normalization and Israel is believed to help India in its major wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971 by supplying mortars and ammunition. In fact, this dimension along with Israel’s advancement in military technology and India’s search for new arms exporter in the aftermath of dissolution of Soviet Union, became prominent factors for normalization.

Notwithstanding the central position held by military, security and defense in the bilateral; political inhibitions hindered institutionalisation of these aspects. For instance, during both the 2008 and 2009 Israeli defense delegations to India comprising of Israel’s top military brass, had proposed to conduct joint counter-terrorism exercises to strengthen strategic, military and intelligence-sharing ties, however, much has not been achieved formally in this aspect at least bilaterally.[iii] Even at the multilateral front, Indian Air Force’s participation in the blue-flag joint air combat exercise including Israel took place only last year. Besides, it’s been only five years since India and Israel recognized each other as strategic partners, in that too, two years were affected by the global pandemic.

Nonetheless, an extraordinary range of cooperation in terms of procurement and co-development of equipment such as missiles, radars, UAVs, assault weapons and so on and so forth confirms that Indo-Israeli defense relation is moving towards an upward trajectory. For instance, in March itself, India test-fired its Army version of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) jointly produced Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) air defense system. Indian Air Force and Indian Navy had already tested their Long-Range Surface-to-Air missile (LRSAM) and Barak 8 naval defense systems respectively.[iv]

Given these new developments, it is safe to say that the two countries are transforming their defense ties beyond arms transactions. This implies that despite India’s focus towards indigenization, the relationship will not be negatively impacted. On the contrary, it is likely to grow stronger. Institutionalizing these developments is thus necessary and this is where Gantz’s ‘special security declaration’ may be well contextualized.

Notes:

[I]Pieter D. Wezeman, Alexandra Kuimova and Siemon T. Wezeman (2022), “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021”, SIPRI Fact Sheet, March, Available at https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/fs_2203_at_2021.pdf, Accessed on 2 May 2022; See also: Yeshi Seli (2022), “India is amongst the World’s largest arms importers, says SIPRI as it cites conflict with China”, The New Indian Express, 14 March, Available at https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2022/mar/14/india-is-amongst-the-worlds-largest-arms-importers-sayssipri-as-it-cites-conflict-with-china-2429965.html#:~:text=India%20is%20amongst%20the%20world’s%20largest%20arms%20importers%2C%20accounting%20for,main%20contributors%20to%20these%20imports., Accessed on 2 May 2022.

[ii] Mohammed Solliman (2021), “An Indo-Abrahamic alliance on the rise: How India, Israel, and the UAE are creating a new transregional order”, Middle East Institute, 28 July, Available at https://www.mei.edu/publications/indo-abrahamic-alliance-rise-how-india-israel-and-uae-are-creating-new-transregional, Accessed on 2 May 2022.

[iii] The Hindustan Times (2008), “Israeli Defence Delegation to visit India Next week”, 3 December, New Delhi, Available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/israeli-defence-delegation-to-visit-india-next-week/story-uEyFCt5NWLK9sLjmvNlAMJ_amp.html, Accessed on 2 May 2022; Rajat Pandit (2008), “New Heights: India, Israel Step Up Defence Ties”, The Times of India, 9 November, Available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/new-heights-india-israel-step-up-defence-ties/articleshow/3690525.cms, Accessed on 2 May 2022.

[iv] Suchet Vir Singh (2022), “Built with Israeli know-how & and Indian touch, new MRSAM system is key addition to Army arsenal”, The Print, 1 April, Available at https://theprint.in/defence/built-with-israeli-know-how-an-indian-touch-new-mrsam-system-is-key-addition-to-army-arsenal/897766/, Accessed on 2 May 2022; The Indian Express (2022), “With two more successful tests, Army Version of MRSAM completes trial”, 31 March, Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-test-fires-surface-to-air-missiles-odisha-drdo-7843963/, Accessed on 2 May 2022.