Building Ties That Bind

The ties between Jerusalem and New Delhi have developed with mutual leverage between the security and political channels, with the sales of weapons creating close relations and confidence, and the political openness leading to additional transactions.

NEW DELHI - The most prominent group in the delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week to India was that of the heads of the security industries. They didn't need Sharon to "open doors for them": They all visit here several times a year already. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations about a decade ago, India and Israel have signed arms deals valued at about $2 billion. The annual volume of sales from Israel to the Indian security system is $500 million, and it is expected to increase.

India and Israel have common strategic interests. Both are on a perpetual war footing, and in recent years have been suffering from Islamic terrorism. The Indians are interested in Israeli technology to reinforce their army, which relies on Russian weapons systems. But in the past they refrained from association with Israel because of political inhibitions and identification with the Arab line.

Only the end of the Cold War and the entry of Israel into the peace process with its Arab neighbors made it possible to normalize relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi. Since then, the ties have developed with mutual leverage between the security and political channels, with the sales of weapons creating close relations and confidence, and the political openness leading to additional transactions. Amos Yaron, director-general of the Defense Ministry, speaks of true cooperation that helps both sides, rather than a mere commercial relationship.

The sales to India and to Turkey, which also improved its relations with Israel as a result of the peace process, rescued the Israeli weapons industry from the crisis it underwent in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the huge market in South Africa, and the cutbacks in the local budget. It is not easy for the Indians to break away from the tradition of supporting the Arabs, and they opened up to Israel slowly. Reliability played an important role: Israel accelerated arms shipments in times of tension between India and Pakistan. But only in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States did New Delhi decide "to come out of the closet" with an open embrace of Israel, which reached a climax with the invitation to Sharon. Even Washington today welcomes the close Israeli-Indian relationship, which worried the U.S. at first.

For the security industries, Sharon's visit is an important signal from India's upper echelon downward that it's good to do business with Israel. The main problem faced by the Israeli arms exporters in India is not a lack of demand or a shortage of cash, but an excess of bureaucracy. The heritage of British rule and a series of affairs involving corruption have taught the Indians to demand a great number of permits and signatures for each transaction, which require a great deal of patience from the Israelis.

In the coming weeks, the largest deal ever will be signed between India and Israel, at a volume of over $1 billion, for the purchase of three Phalcon AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control Systems] planes, which will lengthen the arm of the Indian air force. The political obstacles were removed when Washington publicly agreed to the sale, and Russia stopped delaying the supply of the transport planes on which the Israeli radar will be installed. Sharon spoke on the phone about a month ago with Russian President Putin, in order to open the "bottleneck" in Moscow, and two days ago welcomed the upcoming signing of the deal in his conversation with his Indian colleague, Prime Minister Vajpayee. Only negotiations over cost and conditions remain.

This wonderful friendship is not free of fears and suspicions. Israel doesn't like the increasing closeness between India and Iran, and Sharon insisted on hearing a commitment from his hosts that Israeli technology will not "leak" to the dangerous enemies from Tehran. The industrialists are talking about a window of opportunity of only a few years for increasing their sales to India, until they encounter their American rivals, who are only now entering this huge market. Even in the future the Indians will have a hard time relying on the U.S., which has important interests in rival Pakistan, but the competition will increase. Therefore it is important to tighten cooperation between the Israeli and Indian defense industries, with agreements for joint development and production, and just as important, to improve civilian relations, which until now have lagged behind the improved security cooperation.