Heartburn over Hugs and Hummus

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Indo-Israeli relations have been all hugs and hummus of late, a point that neither Jerusalem nor Delhi seem to be tired of reiterating. Narendra Modi’s trip to Israel without even a perfunctory drop-in at Ramallah has been portrayed as historic by most observers, although there have been some doubts about how much of a departure this really is from India’s previous policy given the three-day visit by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just a couple of weeks earlier.

Whether there really is a shift in Indian policy or not, the perception certainly exists that there has been one and this has caused much heartburn among the ossified grand daddies of entrenched interests. The crux of a string of critiques that have appeared in the Indian press is that the Modi government has made the morally odious choice of abandoning Palestine and in doing so descended into the realm of ordinary states, and that this desertion is but another manifestation of the prime minister’s anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism that has found resonance in Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s equally anti-Islamic Zionism.

In Foreign Affairs, Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch and Manjari Chatterjee Miller argue that “India’s and Israel’s historic perceptions of colonial ideology and religious nationalism are at the root of their longstanding divergence.” According to them, India’s experience as a colony and of bloody Partition created in Indian leaders an aversion to colonialism and religious nationalism; Jewish ambitions in the Levant was, therefore, anathema to them on both counts.

Although Hirsch and Miller are correct in how the Congress leadership viewed Israel and this view did shape Indian policy towards the Jewish state for decades, their article does not grapple with the fact that this was a highly ignorant and erroneous held by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To denounce Zionism as a “child of British imperialism” as Nehru did is laughable, and Gandhi admitted to some of his interlocutors sent by the Jewish Agency to inform and persuade the Indian leader of their worthiness of their cause that he did not know enough about Jewish history. Gandhi thought that Israel was being created “under the shadow of the British gun,” a sentiment difficult to arrive at despite the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917. His simplification of “Palestine for the Arabs” also indicates a severe lack of understanding of the convoluted history of the Levant.

Today, whatever else may motivate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s course correction, it also reflects an acknowledgement of these mistaken views. Old dilemmata over identity will not, contrary to what the article argues, hinder relations but more mundane aspects of economics, regulations, and logistics take time to be streamlined. Additionally, the focus on non-defence matters was a deliberate move by both governments to highlight the civilisation-to-civilisation connections being fostered rather than a purely transactional one – which has been blooming on the sidelines, too.

A churlish piece by Manini Chatterjee in The Telegraph betrays ignorance of Israeli culture as well as any deep engagement with European history or political philosophy. Playing on the tired trope of ethnonationalism, Chatterjee wants to draw attention to the “fusion of religious and cultural identity with a ‘holy’ geographical entity common to both Hindutva and Zionism.” This has, in fact, spared the world of the limitless expansion of more universalist (imperialist) creeds. Chatterjee also takes a swipe at MS Golwalkar for his racial weltanshauung. However, it bears note that Golwalker’s understanding of race was substantially different from the European definition and that Zionism did grow as a response to the liberal European project that sought to dilute and destroy Jewish identity. Instead, Chatterjee prefers to further the myth – as the Dreyfus Affair proved – of civic nationalism.

Rajeesh Kumar’s plea that foreign policy be based on principles rather than on interests (though he sees the two as coterminous) in Outlook is naive at best. His attempt to rescue Nehruvian thinking on Israel, however, is an exceptional attempt at fiction writing. His claim that “India’s support to the Palestinian cause was not determined by the policy of appeasing the Muslim minority population at home” falls flat simply by virtue of Nehru’s own words to the effect that he did not wish to vex Indian Muslims so soon after Partition by cosying up to the Jewish state. Kumar does not explain how Indian policy was pragmatic and not idealistic as he claims but goes on to make another incredulous argument that Israel must be seen as India’s junior partner because of its desire to help the South Asian nation despite being rebuked so often. While Kumar’s point raises an interesting point for further research into Israeli attitudes and thinking towards India, the casting of the receiver of aid as the senior partner is bewildering.

There is no denying of the benefits of better relations with Israel for Kumar, though he warns that this should not mean that India should give Tel Aviv (?) a blank cheque. Kumar’s solution is to extract benefits from Israel via trade and scientific cooperation yet continue to condemn it as has been India’s hypocritical custom in the past. Given Indo-Israeli history, Kumar’s suggestion might work but it will not foster warmer relations.

Finally, he appeals to dharma as a guiding principle of Indian culture and policy. That dharma is not constant but depends on place, time, and situation is entirely lost on Kumar. In a specific circumstance, Krishna advises the Pandavas to go to war even against their own kith and kin. Additionally, Kumar’s appeal to ethics, while noble, has served no purpose in the past. India’s bid to join the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as a country with one of the highest Muslim populations was rejected and Arab states have historically sided with Pakistan politically as well as economically and militarily in its conflict with India.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi tries to resurrect the flawed Indian historical understanding of yesteryear in his article in The Wire. Amusingly, he states that “India’s position has been appreciated, respected by all for its honesty and integrity,” probably referring to only Arab states and the coterie of non-aligned irrelevants. He clings to the old custom of Indian prime ministers abstaining from visiting Israel on principle without addressing the errors of the past or the changes since in the geopolitical climate. Ignoring his preposterous claims of a Palestinian genocide in 1948 for the moment, Gandhi fails to explain why Palestine ought to matter more to Delhi than its own interests. In his selective history, he omits the Egyptian wall along its border with Gaza or the Jordanian action against Palestinians during Black September, not to mention the occupation of “Palestine” by Jordan and Egypt prior to the stunning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Modi’s visit, according Gandhi, gives legitimacy to the “occupation and brutal suppression” of Palestinians by Israel. This conveniently overlooks the Indian statement of support for the Palestinian cause just two weeks ahead of Modi’s trip to Israel. Gandhi goes on to argue that India’s policy now is “wholly political, ideological,” implying, one only assumes from the tone, what his cohort has expressed more explicitly about the BJP being anti-Muslim. This ever-ready, lazy label may have some superficial truth to it but ignores a strong undercurrent of historical grievances and political minoritarian discrimination that has now run its fuse.

It is not so much that the caviling is premised on faulty understandings of Hindutva, Zionism, and the Palestinian Question – sometimes by Gandhi or Nehru – but its ornery nature that makes any genuine debate moot. Nehru’s fundamental failure was that he, as a modern Liberal, approached society – India – as tabula rasa upon which he could put down his doodles. Communities, however, do not work like that – they are a brown field project with all its attendant baggage. More importantly, the debate never moves forward because opponents of Israel in India never tire of repeating their worn out and fallacious mantras rather than responding to a counter that has been put forward decades ago. In this climate, there is no argument – only an attempt to overpower the public sphere by sheer volume.

Potential Hurdles in Indo-Israeli Relations

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Everyone is gaga over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Israel, and they should be. Israel’s welcome to the Indian prime minister stops one step short of a Roman triumph thrown in honour of a conquering emperor. For his part, Modi has shown equal respect to his counterpart, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by avoiding the ritual visit to Palestinian Ramallah and playing up the construction of a special relationship between the two countries rather than a transactional defence bonanza. Netanyahu has cleared his schedule to accompany Modi for the duration of the state visit and both prime ministers are known to have warm feelings towards each other.

Much ink has already been spilled on the natural synergy between the two countries in terms of security and the economy; though a genuinely blossoming relationship will take time to mature, there seems to be little doubt that it will. However, it is only prudent that one casts an eye on two shadows that have the potential to cloud the bonhomie between Delhi and Jerusalem. India’s relations with Iran and Israel’s relations with China stand to possibly be grounds for recriminations later on.

Although China extended recognition to the Jewish state barely five days earlier than India, its relationship with Jerusalem is far stronger in terms of simple numbers. Like India, the two sides have maintained covert contacts for defence purposes since at least 1979. Today, trade between Israel and China stands at over $11 billion – almost three times that between Israel and India. Chinese firms have invested substantially in the Israeli economy, acquiring a controlling stake in several companies and donating to Israeli universities and research labs to establish technological academic institutes. Over a thousand Israeli firms operate in China and an innovation park has been set up in Changzhou. Overall, China is Israel’s third-largest trade partner after the United States and Europe, and the largest in Asia. Militarily, Israel is China’s second-largest supplier of arms after Russia.

Like many countries worldwide, Israel has found it difficult to keep away from the renminbi gravy train. Although the personal chemistry might have been missing, Netanyahu has been quite ebullient in his meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, marketing Israel as the perfect junior partner for China and hoping to marry Israel’s technology to China’s capacity. As one newspaper termed it, make in Israel, expand in China.

Any money, especially Chinese money, comes with political strings attached as Sri Lanka and Cambodia have already realised and Australia seems to be waking up to the same reality. Beijing’s deep forex pockets are difficult to compete with, even for advanced economies, let alone India. Delhi’s concern would be two-fold: where might such lucrative ties lead in terms of outside influence on Jerusalem, and what might be the impact of China having access to many of the same technologies India acquires from Israel?

For the moment, US pressure on Israel has prevented the sale of sensitive technologies such as the Phalcon airborne early warning and control system to China. However, as Chinese firms invest in Israeli technology and enter into joint ventures, Washington’s influence over Jerusalem would wane and Delhi might find itself in a very uncomfortable position vis-a-vis Israel and China.

Similarly, Israel has concerns about India’s ties with Iran. Going by rhetoric alone – there has been precious little action between Delhi and Tehran – India hopes to invest in Iranian hydrocarbons, build Chabahar, and encourage Iran to become part of its International North South Trade Corridor, which would bypass Pakistan and give India access to the heart of Asia for valuable energy and mineral resources. Thankfully for Jerusalem, Delhi has moved at its famed glacial pace and trade between the two countries stands at approximately $16 billion (per capita, that is less than half of that between India and Israel) despite the latter’s energy addiction.

While India has no defence ties to Iran to speak of – the situation in Afghanistan has evolved to the detriment of the synergy of the 1990s between Tehran and Delhi – Jerusalem might worry that increased trade between one of the fastest growing economies in the world and its present archenemy might give the latter greater economic muscle to create more problems on Israel’s doorstep.

Of course, there are many variables at play here still – Israel may offer India gas from its Tamar and Leviathan gas fields to offset Iranian gas, Tehran may prefer Bejing’s reliability and largesse in a partner than Delhi, or Israel may get frustrated with China’s notoriety in reverse engineering. The strongest counter to these concerns is to make a strong, unequivocal commitment, something that would indicate to the other side that the relationship means more than just dollars and sense. For India’s part, a proposal for nuclear cooperation may well be that indication, and Delhi may ask for something equally substantial from Israel in return. Yet the concerns remain for both Israel and India. Among friends, these are conversations best had as soon as possible. Of course, it is also impolite to discuss others one may be seeing on a first date.

A Bridge Too Far?

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Perhaps the most substantial show of friendship India can make towards Israel is to offer cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. Some might argue that a complete disavowal of the Palestinian cause and close diplomatic alignment with Israel would be a greater commitment, especially given Jerusalem’s craving for international recognition and normalisation, but an alliance with a middle power who does not have veto power in the United Nations has too many limitations to be worth much. Nuclear cooperation, however, holds far more allure for two critical reasons: one, it has an immediately utilitarian dimension, and two, pace what some academics have argued about prestige, nuclear commerce is tightly controlled by an international cabal who have deemed Israel ineligible to receive nuclear material.

Yet what will nuclear cooperation with Israel look like? Is Israel even interested in nuclear energy? Can India conduct nuclear commerce with a country that is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or have any sort of tacit acceptance such as the waiver India received from the Nuclear Suppliers Group? Will it invoke sanctions? What would be the ramifications for India? Is India capable of becoming a nuclear vendor? There are several questions that deserve careful thought before either country embarks upon such a venture.

Is Israel interested in nuclear energy?

Israel’s present installed electricity generating capacity is close to 17 GW, putting it in the same league as other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. If the country maintains an economic growth of five percent, energy requirements will rise to approximately 45 GW by 2050.

Israel’s policy of amimut – a Hebrew word meaning opacity – regarding its nuclear weapons programme has meant that it has shied away about discussing anything nuclear in public. However, calls for the country to invest in nuclear energy began in 1976 and continued throughout the 1980s. A site in the Negev desert at Shivta was reserved for a nuclear power plant with a generating capacity of 3,000 MW in 1980. Early in the new millennium, the became more frequent early in the new millennium. In February 2007, Uri Bin-Nun, an official at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, said that Director General Gideon Frank had told him that Israel was actively considering building a nuclear power plant in the Negev. Barely six months later, infrastructure minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer declared that building a nuclear power plant is a national priority and the proposal had the support of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The tsunami at Fukushima also threw water on enthusiasm for nuclear energy in Israel. In an interview with CNN, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that he was having second thoughts about nuclear power after Fukushima. However, Israel’s precarious energy situation meant that calls for nuclear energy would soon resurface. In 2015, the Ministry of Infrastructure raised the test balloon in a report that called for private sector participation in a nuclear energy programme. In an energy plan that forecast the doubling of Israel’s energy needs by 2030, the Ministry of Infrastructure suggested that at least 15 percent of Israel’s energy come from nuclear power by 2050.

Israel’s energy needs are not merely a matter of fuelling the economy – Jerusalem is very conscious of its energy security as well as the environment. After its diversification from coal to natural gas in the late 1990s, Israel discovered what would become the Mari-B gas field off the coast by Ashdod. Within a decade, natural gas became the country’s primary source of energy. Demand became so high that gas had to be imported from Egypt. However, the agreement had to be cancelled after seven years (2005-2012) due to political turmoil and terrorism and this experience underscored Israel’s vulnerability to Jerusalem. The discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields in 2009 and 2010 has given Israel a new lease of life, at least for the next 50 years, and plans are afoot to even begin exports to Europe; since January 2017, Israel began to quietly export gas to Jordan.

Israel also has no hydroelectric power to speak of, so it must rely entirely on fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear power. Its move away from coal was partly due to environmental factors but also due to rising cost of imports; however, reliance on natural gas is still not quite environmentally friendly if Israel is to meet European emissions standards. More importantly, natural gas can serve as a reliable and valuable source of revenue if other energy sources can be found. Israel has invested in renewable energy and despite several remarkable startups in the sector, the government is not particularly enthusiastic about renewables due to its several shortcomings such as low efficiency, storage issues, water demands, land requirements, and grid stability. That leaves Israel with only nuclear energy.

Can India become a nuclear vendor to Israel?

At first glance, India seems a most unlikely nuclear partner for Israel. After all, how can a country which cannot sustain its own nuclear programme be of use to anyone else? It is true that the Indian Department of Atomic Energy has countless weaknesses but with a little political prodding, the DAE might just be able to assist Israel and in doing so revive its own domestic agenda. Despite its shortcomings, India does have the second-largest fleet of pressurised heavy water reactors in the world and decades of experience in building, operating, and maintaining them.

Globally, PHWRs are not the common choice for power generation; light water reactors have been preferred by the non-proliferation-minded governments of nuclear vendors. Yet with appropriate safeguards, this should not matter much to the international community which has experience in monitoring Canada’s 19 CANDU reactors of a technology similar to that which inspired Indian derivatives.

India’s reactors have the added benefit of being cheaper and smaller than the standard production models offered by Areva, General Electric, Rosatom, or Westinghouse. While these firms offer reactors with capacities between 1,000 and 1,650 MW, Indian models come at 220 MW, 540 MW, and 700 MW. The smaller size may suit Israeli needs better by allowing it to distribute reactors between three or four sites around the country. Admittedly, Israel may indeed prefer small modular reactors to even the diminutive Indian PHWRs but those models are yet to have a single working model even if Israel were eligible to purchase them.

It is not advisable to compare reactor costs across sites and technologies due to the dozens of variables that could change. However, as a rough illustration showcasing the viability of Indian nuclear exports, the two Russian 1,000 MW VVERs at Kudankulam III & IV cost India just short of ₹40,000 crores; by comparison, India’s 700 MW PHWRs at RAPS VII & VIII cost ₹12,300 crores and ₹11,500 crores at Kakrapar III & IV.

The biggest obstacle to India’s domestic nuclear manufacturing has been that no industrial house is willing to invest in the nuclear sector due to the paucity of orders. If India aggressively pursued nuclear energy for itself as well as for export purposes, it is a reasonable bet that there would be greater interest. India’s recent decision to approve ten more PHWRs for itself is a shot in the arm and if an order for 20 Israeli reactors over the next 30 years were to trickle in, it could reshape the industry.

There is also the issue of quality control. Indian manufacturers have had trouble producing nuclear grade turbines, instrumentation panels, and other equipment to an international standard. Cooperation with Israel need not be a one-way street – if Israeli know-how could augment Indian experience, these minor irritations might well disappear. This does require working with a level of openness the Indian establishment is not used to but it is a good measure to build character!

The biggest challenge to an Indian nuclear partnership will be its inability to provide full spectrum service. Delhi may be able to supply the reactors, manufacture fuel rods, train Israel to operate and maintain them, even buy back the used fuel to assuage proliferation concerns but it cannot guarantee a supply of uranium ore or yellow cake. India’s domestic production is shrouded in unwarranted secrecy but it relies on imports from Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Russia. The only way for India to emerge as a full spectrum nuclear vendor is by acquiring uranium mines abroad. This would help with domestic use as well as export and is a sound option that Delhi has anyway been considering, regardless of whether India cooperates with Israel in the nuclear field.

What are the geopolitics of Indo-Israeli nuclear cooperation?

This is the real question the proposal for Indo-Israeli nuclear cooperation boils down to. How will the international community react to the news? What will be their counter-moves? Can India and Israel bear the costs, if any? Are the benefits worth the price?

Legally, India stands in a unique space to offer Israel nuclear cooperation if it so desires. It is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty nor is it a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the primary cartel that restricts trade in nuclear technology, components, and fuel. Technically, Delhi breaks no laws by extending nuclear cooperation to Israel. Itself a non-signatory to the discriminatory NPT, India is perfectly placed to accept Israel’s refusal to accede to the treaty – albeit the reasons are somewhat different.

The primary concern for the international community, in principle, should be the diversion of civilian cooperation to military applications. To reassure the world, and because it is a better business practice, India can ask Israel to accede to safeguards under the International Atomic Energy Agency to those specific facilities India will be a partner in or offer a bilateral safeguards mechanism that follows the same protocols. The primary principle of non-proliferation reassured, the international community is but left with a sore nose at this circumvention of their net.

Used nuclear fuel is usually a concern for non-proliferation. India can buy back the used reactor fuel from Israel for use in its eventually coming fast breeder reactor programme. If the FBR programme shows promise, Israel might even be interested in recycling its used fuel with help from India. In a worst case situation, the fuel can be stored in an onsite facility until a suitable geological depository is found as is the case with all current nuclear power plants.

Will cooperation with Israel hurt India’s chances of furthering its own goals, such as getting into the NSG? Theoretically, perhaps. However, with China waiting to veto any mention of India and membership in the same breath, this really need not concern Delhi at all; its chances of getting into the nuclear cartel are as close to zero as one can get. The only way India might squeeze into the NSG is if Delhi is willing to let Pakistan off the hook and give it a clean chit for past transgressions. This is what “principles-based membership criteria” means and it is too high a price to even consider.

It is folly to even think that India is now a partial member of the nuclear community. Barring a handful of countries keen to do deals with it, the hurdles other countries place before Indian aspirations indicates that Delhi is resentfully seen as an interloper with powerful friends. India can expect further outrage from the non-proliferation community through at least these NSG members. Yet legally, India and Israel will have all their bases covered.

It may be tempting to compare Indo-Israeli nuclear cooperation to the Indo-US nuclear deal but it s not – neither India nor Israel are part of the non-proliferation architecture built around the NPT and NSG, freeing to engage in contracts of mutual benefit without restrictions. Regardless, the 2008 deal does establish a precedent and provide a structure for acceptable nuclear commerce outside the strict ambit of the non-proliferation regime. As with India, the non-proliferation community might decide that it is safer to have Israel’s reactors within the fold than without.

Much will depend on how the United States reacts, and as a close ally of Israel, Washington might be amenable to reason. India and Israel may also count on some assistance in lubricating the wheels of power in Washington through the influence of the famed Jewish diaspora. The deal, not a matter of identity or ideology, should not get caught in the internecine conflict in the American Jewish community. Israel has also been cultivating China, mainly for economic interests, who will have to choose between its relationship with Israel and its rivalry with India. The main opposition will likely come from the non-proliferation lobby, or nuclear ayatollahs, as Indian scholar Bharat Karnad has aptly named them.

Conclusion

Nuclear energy is not merely about a diversification of energy sources for Israel. World over, nuclear power plants have proven to have a multiplier effect on the local economy. The Shivta site, for example, would fit perfectly into Jerusalem’s other goal of developing the Negev. Additionally, nuclear power allows cheap desalination of large quantities of water from the waste heat generated by the reactors. A 15 percent share of total national energy creates a need for a fair number of reactors that can ease the pressure off Israel’s water supply. Tamil Nadu has operated desalination plants for over a decade from the waste heat of nuclear power stations in the state. Finally, a booming nuclear industry will also mean high-skilled employment opportunities for the population.

For India, nuclear cooperation will cement relations with an important strategic partner. It will also promote trade and strengthen the nuclear manufacturing sector by providing greater volume to make it lucrative for more players. A nuclear relationship with Israel would in effect set up a parallel nuclear commerce system to the NSG: if they wish to influence Indian policy, they must do so by letting India into the club.

Of course, all of this may be too soon for a country that has itself come in from the nuclear cold barely a decade ago. India, to paraphrase the immortal line of Lt. General Frederick Browning in the 1977 World War II classic, A Bridge Too Far, may be trying to go a bridge too far. People probably said the same thing about the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005.