Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Is India’s Israel envy misplaced?

Israel has no silver bullet to the problem of cross-border, state-sponsored terrorism

It is a curious thing that a nation of a billion people with an army of a million should yearn to be more like a country of eight million people—fewer than the Chennai metropolitan area —with an army of 180,000. But it is so. India’s Israel envy is manifest, like clockwork, upon every Uri-like attack. India is a soft state, inviting further punishment, while Israel rains fire upon its enemies, keeping them in check. India panders to world opinion, while Israel adopts the motto of Britain’s Millwall Football Club: “No one likes us, we don’t care." One craves popularity, the other security. The comparison electrifies the right, offering a vision of bold Indian wars of deterrence, while horrifying the left, appalled by the condition of Gaza and the open sore of occupation without end.

But is this envy misplaced? India and Israel are different in many important ways. But even if emulation were possible, Israel’s model of counter-terrorism may not answer the questions that Indians are posing.

Consider capabilities, first. In terms of conventional war, Israel enjoys a number of advantages. Civil-military relations are the inverse of those in India, and elected leaders have extensive personal involvement with the Armed Forces. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself served in Israel’s special forces, participating in some of the most significant cross-border raids of the 1960s and 1970s. Israel also has an overwhelming technological edge over adversaries, with around a third of all research and development going to the military. Taking one crude measure of sophistication, Israeli defence spending amounts to around $100,000 per soldier, while India allocates under half that. Israel’s mature defence industry makes it the world’s sixth largest arms exporter, the largest by far on a per capita basis.

If we consider covert warfare, Israel’s record of successful assassinations—from retribution for the terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics in the 1970s, to the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists in the past several years—is dependent on the global intelligence network of Mossad, itself helped by a diaspora that often identifies intensely with the Jewish state. Israel also benefits from extensive cooperation with the US. When Israel killed the notorious Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mugniyah in Damascus in 2008, it used a device that the Central Intelligence Agency had tested dozens of times in the same North Carolina facility that would later be used for a mock-up of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. US-Israeli cooperation was also essential for the development of the Stuxnet computer worm that damaged Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet, many of those who are most vocal in demanding that Hafiz Saeed meet an end similar to Mugniyah are also those most suspicious of Indian cooperation with the US, warning that this would erode India’s “autonomy".

To be sure, Israel’s covert wars have not been without problems. They killed the wrong man in Oslo in 1973, botched the job against Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in 1997, and were exposed in Dubai in 2010. Israel’s self-assurance has also drawn it into bloody quagmires, as in Lebanon through the 1980s. These are inevitable by-products of Israel’s approach, though many Indians would accept the occasional error as a small price to pay for hits on Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and their ilk.

But does India face comparable circumstances? In several respects, no. India aspires to a UN security council seat, Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, and recognition as a great power. Israel seeks none of these things. Its enemies are also different. Shashi Tharoor, writing on Israel envy during the Gaza war in 2009, noted that “whereas Hamas operates from Gaza without international recognition, India’s tormentors function from Pakistan, a sovereign member of the United Nations"—and one with nuclear weapons. This is true, and narrows India’s options. However, Israel also has adversaries inside powerful sovereign states. Mugniyah was in Syria, which at the time wielded chemical weapons against Israel as a strategic deterrent, while Iran’s nuclear scientists were in the country’s capital city. That did not stop Israel from reaching them without escalation to open military conflict in both cases.

The real issue lies elsewhere. The point of all this is deterrence and dismantlement. India wants to deter terrorist attacks, and see the dismantlement of the groups behind them. But Israel has achieved the first only partially, and the second not at all. Open wars in Gaza and Lebanon have been followed by periods of relative restraint from Hamas and Hezbollah, respectively. If Israel “restored" deterrence—as its generals say—by attacking Gaza in 2008-09, it lasted only until another war in 2014. Rocket fire recurs, most recently in mid-September. Hamas leaders enjoy a warm welcome in Arab states and Turkey, while Saeed and Masood Azhar would be toxic anywhere outside of Pakistan. And other attacks continue: In 2012, for example, Iran attempted retaliatory attacks on diplomats in India, Georgia and Bangkok.

As for dismantlement, neither overt nor covert wars have worked. Israel has invaded Lebanon, reduced Hezbollah’s strongholds to rubble, and assassinated a string of Hezbollah leaders. Yet, the group has grown far stronger in the decade since it fought Israel, stockpiling 10 times more rockets than it had in 2006, operating an array of drones, and gaining battlefield experience in Syria alongside Russian forces. And Israel fought under vastly more permissive conditions than India would ever enjoy against Pakistan.

If Israel is the answer, India may need to think carefully about the question. Israel offers India positive lessons in how to raise highly capable military and intelligence organizations, under challenging conditions. Its expertise on border security, including aerial surveillance and ground sensors, is especially valuable. But Israel has no silver bullet to the problem of cross-border, state-sponsored terrorism. So much for envy.

Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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