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.


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.

The Next Ten Years


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As Narendra Modi embarks on his trip to Israel, many await the outcome of this historic trip. Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to ever visit Israel and symbolically, the Indian prime minister will not stop to visit the Palestinian Authority while in Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is rumoured to share a good personal chemistry with Modi and has tweeted warmly, welcoming the Indian leader to Israel. Netanyahu has cleared his schedule for the two days Modi is in Jerusalem and plans to spend the entire time in discussions with him.

Ahead of Modi’s visit, the Israeli cabinet has proposed several measures to strengthen relations with India. They include a joint fund to encourage Indo-Israeli business cooperation, an expansion of cooperation in water management and agriculture, and the promotion of tourism. There is already some speculation about the several arms deals the Indian prime minister will also be signing during his trip.

There is no question that relations between India and Israel have been on an upward trajectory for at least the past decade and have achieved an even steeper gradient since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. Trade has increased as has cooperation in the realm of security and neither show any signs of slowing down in the near future. As Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, prophesied about his country’s ties with India, the best is yet to come.

However, the ambassador also made a perceptive point in an interview with the Indian media: for relations to become truly strategic or special, they must move beyond the purely transactional sphere. Towards this end, Carmon pointed to the cooperation between his country and his host country in agriculture and water management. Such interactions bring what Israel has to offer to the doorstep of every Indian. Nonetheless, there is yet tremendous scope for the blossoming of Indo-Israeli relations at the non-governmental level.

The truly special relationship between two states in the modern era must be the United States and Britain. Srdjan Vucetic, a professor at the University of Ottawa, makes a compelling case that this relationship was based, at least initially and for a substantial period, on racial affinity than a congruence of interests and values. India does not share any racial kinship with Israel or the Jewish people. Regardless, the Anglosphere is a good example of what harmonious relations should look like. Despite their differences, the five countries – America, Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand – have supported each other diplomatically on the international stage; Australia has even provided soldiers for every major conflict the United States has found itself in.

Not bound by race or even a shared history, India and Israel can nonetheless base their bond over the fact that the former remains one of the few, perhaps the only, major country that has never had anti-Semitism in its history. This, combined with the obvious strategic imperative and economic opportunities should serve to foster people-to-people relations between Indians and Israelis. While political pressures will motivate strategic cooperation and economic realities will propel trade on their own, both governments must take an effort to encourage cultural connections. This is best done through education, tourism, and the arts.

India may not have too many universities that Israeli students might be interested in but it still has a few good medical and engineering colleges, at least at the undergraduate level. Scholarships should be created for Israelis wishing to study at these institutes, with opportunities for work-study and internships. There is no substitute for living in a country for four years or more to become familiar with its work ethic, politics, and culture. Similarly, avenues should be created to facilitate Indian students who wish to study at Israeli universities or intern at their think tanks. Already, hundreds of thousands of Indians seek intellectual enrichment in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia; there is no reason Israel cannot be a destination for Indian scholars, especially given its reputation in information technology, trauma medicine, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

University exchange programmes – for lecturers as well as students – may well serve in improving Indian education. An inflow of foreign students could increase pressure to update curricula, spark off research programmes, improve university governance, and ameliorate financial woes. The power of educational exchanges must not be underestimated – the role played by the British Rhodes scholarship and the American Fulbright Programme in influencing young minds world over in the Anglo-American way of thinking comes to mind.

Another important industry that is open to more than just young scholars is tourism. Both Israel and India are ancient cultures with histories that go back at least five millennia. Several historical sites in both countries are even dated several millennia earlier. More than for just history buffs, India also offers a bewildering array of cuisines and terrain that will excite and entrall tourists. Israel’s beaches and adventure sports are similarly a powerful draw for visitors. While Israel has already started to entice Indians to tour its treasures, there is much for India to do on this front. Cleanliness, adequate bathroom facilities, and protection of the monuments from the picnicking masses would be a start; accurate information in multiple languages available online and multilingual tour guides would be another measure to bring Indian tourism to even basic standards. On the larger scale, lodging and transportation need to be improved to tourist destinations.

About 40,000 Israelis visit India every year. Most of them are young people who have just finished their mandatory military service, have financial constraints as they are yet to start working, and prefer the peace and quiet of remote towns in the foothills of the Himalayas than Ellora, Khajuraho, or the Taj Mahal, at least initially. Better connectivity and infrastructure in these areas might not only persuade more Israelis to visit India (rather than South America, the other favourite destination after military service), but entice them to stay longer. Better upkeep of tourist destinations may not immediately interest this crowd but it will attract their parents – who may have spent six to twelve months of their youth in India too – to make a second trip to India. More importantly, development of tourist places is not an Israel-specific project but will make India’s attractions bearable for people all around the world.

Towards bettering tourism traffic, both countries could take several steps in making travel easier. First, visas can be made easier to apply for via an online application process that accepts scanned documents as well as the application form. Two, criteria for tourist visas can be relaxed. Three, keeping in mind the nature of Israeli tourism to India, the period of e-tourist visas can be extended to a year. All these steps would be towards the eventual goal of eliminating the requirement for visas for tourist travel between the two countries. Admittedly, some of these measures have been partially put in place. However, there remains much progress to be made.

Additionally, connectivity between India and Israel stands to be substantially improved. There is only one carrier that flies directly between Israel and India – that is the Israeli airline El Al, with two weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Bombay. Such things are largely commercially influenced but it is not inconceivable that additional carriers operating at least weekly from India’s IT hub, Bangalore, and Delhi might find passengers.

On the cultural front, Delhi and Jerusalem must do more to promote their music, art, literature, and language in each other’s countries. There is some very intelligent Israeli cinema and theatre that have not made it to India except, perhaps, on torrents, because of the language barrier. Sponsoring tours by theatre groups and promoting foreign language films can be a great way to expose Indians and Israelis to each other’s societies. As the French have their Alliance Française and the Germans their Goethe-Institut, Israel could promote Hebrew via its literature and philosophy. Stronger business and educational ties will spur an interest in learning Hebrew among Indians. Similarly, India can promote Sanskrit and Indian philosophy in Israel, which, for some odd reason, seems to have a fair number of people interested in Indian thought and literature.

It must be remembered that culture is by its very nature an elite preoccupation and will not have too many takers. However, the rewards will be ample from those who do take advantage of the new options and become ambassadors of their culture to the other. What makes it worse is that unlike defence or economics, culture remains ambiguous both in its promotion and reception. It is not possible to have clear metrics of investments to results, it is perfectly possible that some visitors either to India or to Israel had some personal experiences that left them with a bitter taste of the other’s culture. One only hopes that familiarity breeds brotherhood.

Over the next decade of Indo-Israeli ties, both Delhi and Jerusalem must indeed strengthen defence cooperation in terms of sales, joint ventures, and manufacturing. On the economic front, the free trade agreement that has been languishing in the doldrums since 2004 would be a welcome catalyst to increasing trade. However, the absolute numbers will not be much – Israel is only slightly larger than Nagaland with the population of Bangalore – but the value will be in the reliability of the relationship. It is the people-to-people connections that will ultimately be the bedrock of ties and give meaning beyond the mundane. Unlike security and trade, culture needs support, encouragement, and nurture. This should be the next focus in both capitals.