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Through Tel Aviv

India’s Reckless Road to Washington

by VIJAY PRASHAD

On Thursday, November 27, in the middle of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Imran Babar, one of the terrorists, called India TV from Nariman House. He used a cellphone that belonged to Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, the co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Center. The following day, Babar and his associates killed Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka. The phone call he made was not long. Babar opened with a comment that made little sense to most people: “You call [Israel’s] army staff to visit Kashmir. Who are they to come to J &K [Jammu and Kashmir]? This is a matter between us and Hindus, the Hindu government. Why does Israel come here?”

Little is known of Babar’s babbles outside the confines of Hakirya, the “campus” of the Israeli high command, and of South Block, which houses the Indian External Affairs and Defense ministries. What he referred to are the growing military and security ties between India and Israel. As well, he might have referenced the now rather solid links between the Hindu Right and the Israeli Right, and how their view of the conflicts that run from Jerusalem to Srinagar mirror those of the jihadis like Babar. Imran Babar and his fellow terrorists come to their critique from the standard anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism that blinds many aggrieved jihadis. Rather than make a concrete assessment of their grievances, they take refuge in as mythical a world as sketched out by the Israeli Right-Hindu Right, where Jews, Hindus and America are arrayed against Muslims.

That the terrorists attacked the Chabad-Lubavitch Center has renewed the call to see the commonalities between the victims of terrorism, whether those in a Haifa restaurant or a Mumbai train, between 9/11 and 11/26. To do so flattens out a significant differences, and reduces the violence to their acts themselves rather than to the social context that leads people to acts of terror. Mumbai provokes the Right to seek recourse to the solutions of war and surveillance, methods that might create a moment’s sense of security before the wily adversary finds a new technological means to strike back. There is no common technical solution: better sniper rifles or iris scanners, better intelligence databases or cattle prods. The weapons used to deal the fatal blow to the terrorists are also incubators of a new generation of terrorists. This is an elementary lesson, lost to those who seek the silver bullet.

Why Does Israel Come Here?

On September 10, 2008, Israel’s top army official, General Avi Mizrahi landed in New Delhi. He met with India’s leading army, navy and air force officials before leaving for a short visit to Jammu and Kashmir. Mizrahi, a long-standing officer in the Israeli Defense Force, lectured senior Indian army officers at the Akhnur Military Base, near the Indo-Pakistan border, on the theme of counterterrorism. Later, in Srinagar, Mizrahi and his Indian counterpart, Army Chief Deepak Kapoor agreed to joint counterterrorism activities, notably for Israeli commandoes to train Indian soldiers in urban combat.

The Mizrahi visit in 2008 is not extraordinary. He had been to India in February 2007. In June 2007, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky brought a team of IDF officers to Jammu and Kashmir, where they met senior Indian officials at the 16 Corps headquarters at Nagrota in the Jammu region near the India-Pakistan border. Kaplinsky’s team discussed the problem of infiltration, how militants from the Pakistani side enter the India. The 720-kilometer barbed wire fence, an echo of Israel’s wall, has not prevented the transit of militants. Kaplinsky came to push other, high-tech means, such as night-vision devices, to help interdict militants. En route to Israel, Kaplinsky’s team went to the Mumbai-based Western Naval Command.

In January 2008, to continue these contacts, the IDF’s chief, Brigadier General Pinchas Buchris came to India and met the top civilians and the top brass. They discussed the procedures to share intelligence on terrorist activity. A week after Buchris returned to Israel, India’s Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta spent time in Jerusalem, meeting IDF heads Gabi Askhenazi and Buchris. Between 2007 and early 2008, all three Indian defense chiefs visited Israel. The framework for these meetings is the 2002 agreement to form an Indo-Israeli Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, a long-standing attempt to create an entente between the armies of India and Israel, and to consolidate the immense arms trade between the two countries (India is now Israel’s largest arms buyer).

The impetus for the relations goes back to the 1990s, when the governing Congress Party began to dismantle the dirigiste Indian State and to withdraw from India’s long-standing non-aligned policy. The Congress government believed that it was time to reassess its relations with the United States, and that the best way to get to Washington was through Tel Aviv. Stronger ties with Israel might soften the reticence in Washington toward India, and lead it to loosen its bonds with Pakistan and China. India banked on Israel to play the broker with Washington. (This is the argument of my book, Namaste Sharon: Hindutva and Sharonism Under U. S. Hegemony, New Delhi: LeftWord, 2003).

In January 1992, the Indian government recognized the state of Israel. The next month, Defense Minister Sharad Pawar called for Indo-Israeli cooperation on counter-terrorism. Israel’s Director-General of Police Ya’acov Lapidot visited India for an international police convention, and returned to Israel with news that the Indian government wanted Israeli expertise on counter-terror operations. Government spokesperson Benjamin Netanyahu told India Abroad (29 February 1992) that Israel “developed expertise in dealing with terrorism at the field level and also internationally, at the political and legal level, and would be happy to share it with India.” In the Congress years, the main arena of cooperation came in arms deals, as India’s massive purchases provided stability to Israel’s previously volatile arms industry.

When the Hindu Right came to power in the late 1990s, it hastened both the economic “liberalization” policy (with a Minister for Privatization in office) and it shifted its attentions to Washington, DC and Tel Aviv: an axis of the three powers against what it called Islamic terrorism was to be the new foundation of India’s emergent foreign policy. The close relationship between Netanyahu (then Prime Minister) and L. K. Advani (the Home Minister of India, and a brigand of the Hard Right) smoothed the path to intensive collaboration. Advani admires Netanyahu’s personal history as a member of the Sayeret Matcal (special forces) unit of the IDF; Advani himself has no such on-the-ground experience. In 1995, when in Israel, Advani happily received Netanyahu’s new book, Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism.

Advani has since made it his practice to quote from the book, particularly the view that a “free society must know what they are fighting,” which is the “rising tide of Islamic terrorism.” This was all honey in Advani’s ear. He drew the central concepts of his counter-terrorism policy from his friends in the Israeli government: a wall at the border, threats of “hot pursuit” across it; demur against political negotiation, escalation of rhetoric; limits on civil liberties when it comes to suspects in terror cases. Netanyahu had purposely refused to distinguish between Iran and Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, the PLO and the Muslim Brotherhood. Advani too began to collapse the distinction between Kashmiri separatist groups and post-Afghan war terror outfits based in Pakistan, between aggrieved Indian Muslims and Pakistani proxy forces. As well, Netanyahu and Advani crafted a stage on which to enact an endless battle between Democracy and Terrorism, where the role of Democracy is played by the United States, Israel and India and where the role of Terrorism is played by Islam. It is all simple and dangerous.

During his June 2000 visit to Israel, Advani underscored his adoption of Netanyahu’s framework during a lecture at the Indian Embassy. “In recent years we have been facing a growing internal security problem,” he said. “We are concerned with cross-border terrorism launched by proxies of Pakistan. We share with Israel a common perception of terrorism as a menace, even more so when coupled with religious fundamentalism. Our mutual determination to combat terrorism is the basis for discussions with Israel, whose reputation in dealing with such problems is quite successful.” Advani invited a team of Israeli counter-terrorism experts to tour Jammu and Kashmir in September 2000. Led by Eli Katzir, an aide to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the team conducted a feasibility study of India’s military security needs and offered suggestions for Israeli assistance. Three years later, Israel and India signed a military-arms pact that included a specific training mission. Israeli forces would train four new Special Forces battalions of the Indian Army; other battalions would learn the practice of “irregular warfare” and work with the Northern Command in Kashmir.

When the Hindu Right lost the election in 2004 to a Congress-led alliance, the pace of contacts lessened. With both Advani and Netanyahu in the shadows, the alliance lost its main champions. The Congress government recognized how toxic this alliance would be, unnecessarily inflaming an already difficult relationship with Pakistan. This was also recognized within Israel. Efraim Inbar, director of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who is actively involved in the Indo-Israeli contacts, recognizes the political problem; “this kind of cooperation needs to be secret if it can be,” he told Newsweek. The military and arms deals between India and Israel continued, even if it was now treated as a sideshow. India remains a major importer of Israeli arms. What lingers in the shadows is the Israeli work in Kashmir. Little is officially revealed of it, even as leaks here and there hint at the extent of the contacts.

Technocrats of Terrorism.

Ami Pedazhur, a political scientist from the University of Austin-Texas, joins the chorus on the New York Times op-ed page with suggestions for the Indian government after Mumbai (“From Munich to Mumbai,” December 20). Rather than see anything new in the Mumbai attacks, Pedazhur conjoins it with an unbroken history that stretches back at least to the 1972 Munich attacks. What links Munich to Mumbai is neither the identity of those who kill nor those who are killed, but the means by which the killing occurs. Analysts of terrorism, like Pedazhur, are technocrats of counter-terrorist actions. They study how terrorists operate, and so what best security and military force can constrain them. The public policy that stems from this sort of technocratic view of terrorism has one end, to restrain the terrorist with more security checkpoints, more hot pursuit.

Why does the Indian government take advice from a government whose own security services have a dismal record of preventing terror attacks and whose own armed forces have failed to create stability on its borders? Israel’s weaponry works fine. But Israel’s counter-terror expertise is questionable. Pedazhur takes pride in Israel’s counterterrorism policy. What pride there can be in a regime that maintains its safety through a ruthless military strategy is questionable. The Israeli government, regardless of the party in charge, is conspicuous not only for its treatment of the Palestinians but also, significantly, for its failure to create a secure society for its own citizens. It is easy enough to make the Palestinians the author of the troubles, but this of course ignores the intransigence of Israel’s political leadership to produce a settlement. Because it cannot make a political peace, the Israeli authorities have perfected various technological means to minimize the consequences of its failures. This is what it wishes to export to India. For India, the imports signal the surrender of its leadership to the current imbroglio. Gated countries wallow in fear and hatred.

The costs of the Tel Aviv-New Delhi-Washington axis are too much to bear, at least for India. India cannot afford to mimic Israel’s failed neighborhood policy, nor can it follow the U. S. example that seeks to solve its problems by aerial bombardment. South Asia requires a regional solution to what is without doubt a regional problem, one with its roots in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s as much as the unresolved Kashmir question (with close to a million troops in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government runs what is tantamount to an occupation – they provide the opposite of security for the residents of the state). When the Afghan civil wars came to a unjust quiet in the early 1990s, the various foreign fighters returned to their homelands, emboldened by their self-perception of their victorious struggle: they went to Chechnya, the Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and into the Kashmir struggle. Pakistan and India are equally victims of these veterans of the jihad, and both have a vested interest in their demobilization. But more than that, there is a danger that as the U. S. amps up its war in Afghanistan and treats Pakistan with contempt, the jihadis  will take out their wrath with the same kind of ferocity as they demonstrated in Mumbai. Rather than risk a failed military strategy against the jihadis, it is time for a regional conference on human security, one that includes better cooperation between the states and a program for the lives of those who are driven to the compounds of hatred through their many, many grievances.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu