The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently carried a story about newly-released data from the British Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) which has revealed that, in the past five years, Israel has sold weapons to Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Pakistan. In a rare and amusing concurrence of opinions, all named parties have denied any such links and declared the report to be false.

Nothing in this drama is startling, except to the amateur. Israel has frequently entered into agreements with countries that do not recognise it and are, if public rhetoric is to be trusted, inimical to it. Nonetheless, this revelation reiterates what many observers of Indian foreign and security policy have warned Delhi about repeatedly over the past two decades – a wishy-washy, holier-than-thou attitude holds little water in international politics.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the sale of defence equipment is strictly regulated, and governments constantly modify export control lists dictating equipment allowed to be sold and to whom it may be sold. The dual use of some technology has created embarrassments for governments, such as when the British government came under fire for exporting crowd control systems to Bahrain two years ago in the midst of the Arab Spring. More than public embarrassment, arms sales are regulated so that high-tech weaponry does not fall into the wrong hands. For example, India would not want to sell the Brahmos missile to a country that would then give access to or sell it to Pakistan or China.

What is interesting in the BIS data (there was no one report but a routine release of data) is that Britain would allow the export of radar systems, electronic warfare systems, heads-up cockpit displays (HUDs), parts and components for fighter jets, training jets, and aircraft engines, and optic target acquisition systems to Pakistan but not the sale of aircraft engines or satellite radar to India. The systems on sale to one South Asian neighbour may not be the same as the one refused to the other, but British military commerce with Pakistan ought to raise in India the same questions Israeli dealings with the Islamic Republic do.

On Israel’s part, Jerusalem has rushed to soothe India’s concerns. Categorically denying having sold any defence equipment to Pakistan, the Israeli government declared that it would do nothing to compromise its excellent strategic relations with India or undermine its security. Israeli Ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, repeated his government’s statement and added that his country had recently adopted a policy not to supply security or weapon systems to Pakistan. Israel is India’s third largest supplier of arms and India Israel’s largest buyer, accounting for nearly 50% of Israeli arms sales.

Despite Jerusalem’s protestations, it would not be surprising if Israel did sell defence equipment to Pakistan. It would be publicly embarrassing in the Islamic Republic for such ties to be revealed, and the two states do not even share official diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, the Jewish state has been adept at evolving with the political climate, and its famed intelligence service, the Mossad, has evolved into a shadow Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Israel formed an important link in the US support of the mujaheddin during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, supplying arms to the Taliban (and Pakistan).

During the Iran-Iraq War, Israel sold weapons to an avowedly anti-Israel Tehran despite the two countries not recognising each other. In fact, Israel has frequently sold arms to Arab states away from the public eye. Of late, Israeli and Arab interests have coincided vis-a-vis Iran, and Jerusalem has been working quietly to form a regional moderate crescent with Western-leaning Muslim states to contain Iran.

It is also possible that Israel is a convenient go-between – during the 1971 tensions in South Asia, US president Richard Nixon was barred from sending weapons to Pakistan by his own Congress. In an effort to bypass this decision, the White House leaned on the Shah of Iran to send Pakistan some of its fighter jets and equipment which would be made up by the US and portrayed on the books as arms sales to Iran. Indo-US relations have always been difficult to manage, and Obama’s lukewarm treatment of India after the highs of the George W. Bush administration has already come as a disappointment to South Block mandarins. A military deal with Pakistan would unnecessarily complicate ties between Delhi and Washington.

Israel’s defence relationship with Pakistan – if it exists, or if the deal merits the term ‘relationship’ – may be due to the two states’ mutual concern about Iran. Pakistan’s western neighbour has been no friend to Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan, and recent agreements between Tehran and Delhi on developing Iran’s Chabahar port and the infrastructure around it have left Pakistan feeling somewhat encircled. Israel’s concerns regarding Iran are well-known.

This is not to say that Israel is willing to sacrifice what promises to be a far more rewarding financial relationship with India. As the Soviets signalled their displeasure to India over the latter’s warming relations with the United States in 1965 by offering tanks to Pakistan, Israel may be hinting to India its discomfort with close relations between Tehran and Delhi. India has maintained trade with Iran despite US and EU sanctions designed to scuttle Iran’s nuclear programme.

India has its own questions regarding Israel’s defence equipment promiscuity. Though Pakistan is a new variable in the India-Israel equation, the latter has been selling weapons systems to China for long. Israel’s assistance to China in modernising its military has made India wary of Israel’s nonchalant commercial opportunism. Although China does not presently pose a direct threat to Israeli interests, Beijing is very much within the cross-hairs of Delhi and India is naturally suspicious of any state that shares such good relations, however opportunistic, with its enemy. Furthermore, India worries that technology transfers to China may end up in the hands of the Pakistani military. It is, however, ironic that China is Tehran’s supplier of missile technology and nuclear supplies as well as a known merchant in conventional weaponry throughout the Middle East.

Ultimately, economics does not trump all – if India and Israel cannot have an honest conversation about their areas of interest and concerns, there is no hope for a strategic relationship that the Israeli government describes as that of soul mates. The sheer size of India’s defence orders – bound to shrink as Delhi emphasises indigenous development – will not be enough of a carrot for Israel to prioritise India’s security interests above all. India must reconsider its foreign and security policy too; its prickliness over its autonomy screams of an inferiority complex, perhaps fuelled by the real knowledge of its military and economic limitations.

Delhi’s love affair with ideas that have no real world meaning – such as non-alignment – has hampered it from making bold moves in its relations with Israel and other countries. In the face of such timidity from Delhi, is it shocking that India’s friends look elsewhere too?

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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