India is hardly Israel: Balakot was a major strategic shift, but Israel’s defence culture differs markedly from ours

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After the air strikes on Balakot which marked a major strategic shift in the Indian state’s response to terror, political comparisons with Israel have followed. For those advocating a more muscular response to cross-border terrorism, Israel has long been the holy grail. So, almost immediately after the Indian Air Force strikes on the Jaish-e-Muhammad training camp on February 26, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav observed “in a way we have entered the league of nations like Israel”.

Similarly, Israel served as a benchmark after post-Uri surgical strikes, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared the military action to the prowess of the Israelis. Speaking at a rally in Himachal Pradesh on October 18, 2016, he had said: “We used to hear earlier that Israel has done this. The nation has seen that Indian Army is no less than anybody.”

The reference to Israel itself was not surprising. After all, Israel’s anti-terror policies have long been held up wistfully by many in the security establishment as a prescriptive template. Security cooperation was one of the reasons why PM Narasimha Rao formally opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, followed by the purchase of India’s first IAI Searcher unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and an air combat manoeuvring system from Israel in 1996.

Since then, India has become the largest single market for Israeli arms. Israeli arms sales to India, second only to those by the Russians, have gone up 650% in the past decade, amounting to $715 million in 2017 alone. Indeed, IAF missiles fired in Balakot reportedly used Israeli-made SPICE-2000 guidance kits.

Beyond defence connections alone, the idea of Israel always held a seductive attraction for the political right in India. This is why, though security cooperation with Israel consistently expanded under all regimes since the late 1990s, under Modi the broader India-Israel relationship achieved much more public salience. First, when Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Tel Aviv in July 2017 and then with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s return visit to Delhi in January 2018.

Given this backdrop, it was an easy if facile next step to compare what Modi has called “new India” with the Israeli ethos on defence. To the extent that India publicly attacked cross-border terrorism at its source, India has certainly moved closer towards that paradigm. But there are significant differences in strategic culture between India and Israel.

First, one of the defining features of Israel’s defence posture is its aggressive counter-terrorism, either through covert actions as when it lethally pursued those who killed Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic Games for years, or through almost-immediate punitive air strikes in response to rocket attacks on Israeli soil. At an operational level, the ability to launch such regular cross-border actions at will takes time to build and entails a huge shift in strategic culture. Undertaking such punitive or preventive military actions as a symbolic demonstration of intent versus doing it each time a terror outrage happens are different ballgames altogether.

Second, Israel does not face nuclear armed adversaries. A policy of imposing heavy military costs on the enemy’s turf when you are facing armed militias or even smaller sized militaries carries a very different risk and escalation calculus from an adversary who is somewhat similar in conventional terms, like Pakistan, and has a nuclear sabre to rattle as well.

Third, Israel’s offensive posture was originally an offshoot of its reality as a very small country geographically facing an existential crisis from the very moment of its birth. It has always been helped by unparalleled support from the United States to do what it liked. India’s diplomatic latitude on such actions has historically been much more limited, even though it has significantly expanded now.

Fourth, at a deeper level there is a marked difference between the civilian-military cultures of Israel and India. It was striking after Balakot that while the greatest sabre rattling and emotional rhetoric came from the Indian middle classes and political actors, some of the more prominent public voices of restraint happened to be from military families.

Herein lies the rub. Israel, as a virtual “nation-at-arms” has always had conscription. Every Israeli man (who’s a Jew or Druze, excepting those with medical disabilities or religious scholars) above 18 serves in the military for 36 months, every Israeli woman for 24 months.

By contrast, most Indians have an emotional and patriotic stake in military retaliation, but may never actually pay any personal cost for it. It is easy to pound drumbeats of war when your family’s lives are not really at stake, except in an abstract sense. Of course, this doesn’t mean that having families serving in uniform automatically makes you pacifist. The Israeli example is a case in point.

The dilemmas of Israel’s conscription approach were encapsulated in a discomfiting debate last year when a controversial ad for a top Tel Aviv hospital portrayed a fetus wearing a military beret, with the caption “recipient of the presidential award of excellence, 2038”. The ad was later withdrawn but the idea it spoke to was very clear.

Finally, India is the world’s largest democracy forged in a plural ethos. Israel is the only mature democracy in the Middle East. But the religious establishment has always had a special place at the heart of the Jewish state.

Its Nationality Bill, passed in 2018, specified Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This makes the Israeli state closer to a theocratic one. This is fundamentally why India is not Israel, although it also explains why many who aspire to a Hindu India may be inspired by Israel in more ways than one.

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