July 4, 2017 — Tel Aviv, Israel
Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Seminar Marking the Visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel
I’d like to begin my brief remarks by thanking General Yadlin and his colleagues for making today’s program possible, and expressing my gratitude to Mr. Rangaswami, Dr. Barai and Mr. Patel, AJC’s partners in the ever-strengthening bond between the Indian and Jewish peoples, and of course saluting the leadership of AJC Honorary President Stanley Bergman, who has been a pioneer in opening doors to Israel across the globe, but especially in India. I also want to thank my AJC colleague Nissim Reuben for his work in organizing this seminar, and to add that it is a distinct honor for me to sit on a panel moderated by Ambassador Eran, a diplomat of unmatched insight and effectiveness, and to be joined by Dr. Singh and Dr. Madan.
And if you’ll permit me one more introductory passage, I’d like to dedicate my remarks and my presence in this program to two extraordinary Indian patriots who didn’t live to see this week’s historic events, but who are with us in spirit. I’m thinking a great deal today, and with great respect, of Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob, of blessed memory, the highest ranking Jewish military officer in Indian history, who passed away early last year, and who promoted to Prime Minister Modi and the entire Indian national security establishment the benefits of alignment with Israel. Jack Jacob, a personal friend for more than 20 years, was a warrior, a man of peace, a man of letters, and a committed Jew; he was a giant, and he is remembered with deep appreciation today.
Also very much in my mind and my heart today is the late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, for decades one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers, for 14 years the director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses and later the founder and director of the Center for Air Power Studies, and an early and influential proponent of strategic partnership with Israel – at a time when such thinking was well outside the box in Indian political and military circles. Air Commodore Singh, who passed away almost four years ago, was a friend – as well as a mentor in AJC’s efforts to forge and reinforce trilateral ties among India, Israel and the United States. He, too, is sorely missed and fondly remembered today.
Benefiting from the wisdom and impact of those two great Indian soldier-scholars, we find ourselves gathered here this morning to mark this week’s first-ever visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister, as well as the 25th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between these two sister democracies, and to reflect in this segment of our seminar on the challenges and opportunities presented by this growing alliance.
I can offer my own thoughts on the strategic challenges and opportunities from both an Indian and an Israeli perspective – challenges that closer Indian-Israeli alignment might or might not pose to India’s emergence as a global political power, and as a significant player in Middle East affairs, and opportunities that might or might not exist for Israel’s continued engagement and integration into the community of nations, in particular that segment of the community that we can still refer to as Non-Aligned. But in the company of Indian and Israeli strategic thinkers of distinction, I think I’d prefer to offer an American perspective.
Here, I will be very direct. The Indian-Israeli alliance is viewed positively by the United States – redounding to the benefit of both countries…and, as I believe we will address in a later panel, redounding to the benefit of both the Indian and Jewish communities. The closer this relationship grows, the more positive, I believe, will be the American response.
Needless to say, a fact of life in American politics for most of the last 70 years has been broad bipartisan support in Congress for a close U.S.-Israel relationship, and broad popular support and sympathy for Israel across American religious and ethnic lines. That there have been challenges to that support in certain segments of the American public is indisputable; nor do I question the findings of opinion surveys in recent years that suggest a worrisome weakening of support among certain progressive constituencies. We who are dedicated to Israel advocacy cannot relax and rely on a history of strong congressional and grass-roots support. At the same time, it must be said that the product, the brand, that is democratic Israel – with its powerful religious and values and historical and security attachments to the United States – is strong and likely to remain strong, upheld by devoted constituencies and organizations such as AJC.
This American engagement with and support for Israel extends to the national security establishment. Defense and intelligence cooperation is robust – and, for all the tensions of the last eight years, it grew even more so in that period, and is likely to get even stronger under the current U.S. administration.
I don’t believe the same assessment can yet be made of India – although regard for India has clearly been on an upward path since the Clinton years. Prime Minister Modi was warmly received when he addressed a joint meeting of Congress last June…but contrary voices regarding religious and gender issues can still be heard on Capitol Hill and in the State Department and Washington think tanks. There are lingering concerns in the national security establishment about the transfer of sophisticated technologies, and there are still what many regard as exaggerated concerns about closer ties with New Delhi upsetting the strategic balance with Pakistan. There are also concerns in some quarters about India’s relationship with Iran, and whether that relationship is serving as a relief valve for Tehran just as Washington is intent on increasing pressure on the globe’s premier state sponsor of terror.
India’s growing relationship – growing strategic alignment and identification – with Israel doesn’t make such concerns disappear. But it allows India to be seen in a different light – as a regional actor, even a global actor, that perhaps doesn’t meet all of Washington’s expectations but that, in a departure from its Cold War past, comes down decidedly on our side. If in common parlance the enemy of my enemy is my friend, even more strongly can it be said that the friend of my friend is surely my friend.
For Israel, too, beyond the obvious economic benefits of intensified trade, investment, joint ventures, and tourism, and beyond the clear strategic benefits of intelligence and defense cooperation with a vast country that lies just beyond the ring of historically hostile powers, there are from a strictly American perspective additional advantages in the expanded relationship with India: the perception of Israel as a partner in counterterrorism with a country that has suffered grievously from terror, as have Israel and the United States; the perception of Israel as a partner in global economic development, perhaps even more valuable at a time when the United States is contemplating sharp cutbacks in development assistance; and the perception of Israel as a bridge over the traditional North-South divide, America’s closest ally in the region serving to strengthen the natural bonds between India and the West.
One additional advantage, I would argue, lies in the accelerating political partnership the Indian-Israeli relationship reinforces between Indian Americans and American Jews – which has particular salience in American progressive politics and on U.S. college campuses, places where traditional support for Israel is most under fire. But I will leave this topic for the later panel today that is devoted to the subject of Indian-Jewish coalition-building.
My final observation, before yielding the floor, is that the opportunities India and Israel have increasingly seized over the last quarter-century are so obviously just a fraction of the potential this naturally synergistic relationship presents.The shyness, the hesitation, the fear that this relationship would roil Indian domestic politics or imperil Indian expatriates working in Muslim-majority countries has now, thanks to the vision of Prime Minister Modi and the outstretched hand of Prime Minister Netanyahu – and, one should note, thanks to the similar determination of Presidents Mukherjee and Rivlin – essentially fallen away. Surely, a relationship that grew more or less in the dark will now, fully in the light, burst into bloom. That is our hope, and our expectation.