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Why Israel Can’t Be a Strategic Role Model for India

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Why Israel Can’t Be a Strategic Role Model for India

Comparisons between the Indian and Israeli militaries overlook some obvious differences.

Why Israel Can’t Be a Strategic Role Model for India
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Speaking at a public function in Himachal Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared the Indian army’s “surgical strikes” against terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan-administered Kashmir to the Israeli army’s policy of targeted military action and “pre-emptive strikes” beyond its borders. He said, “Our army’s valor is being discussed across the country these days. We used to hear earlier that Israel has done this. The nation has seen that the Indian Army is no less than anybody.”

Prime ministerial speeches are often replete with metaphors and symbols that are subsequently used to frame national and international events. Such rhetoric constructs national identity in a particular way, ruling out a specific set of policy options in line with the frames used. Whether Modi’s observation in Himachal Pradesh was tailored for his political supporters or indicated a decisive transformation in India’s strategic culture remains to be seen. But benchmarking Israel as a model of “ideal” military action would certainly situate Modi’s remarks within the broader narrative of Indian military strategy.

Many Indians have suggested on numerous occasions that, on issues involving military operations, India can emulate Israel. It can be argued that both India and Israel face strategic environments that require their armed forces to prepare for a mix of internal and external threats. These threats demand militaries that are trained, organized, and equipped for both conventional and low-intensity operations. The adaptation of their militaries to low-intensity conflict or irregular wars has been a gradual process as organizational dynamics have led them to prefer preparing for a conventional war.

The fact that Israel must prepare its military for a variety of threats makes the country a good point of comparison with India. As the Indian military has learned in Kashmir and Northeast India, non-state violent actors, despite being labeled as “low-intensity threats,” can be very difficult to handle. In addition to low-intensity threats, the Indian military must also prepare to deal with state adversaries who are armed with nuclear weapons. It has been argued that Israel’s experience during the last decade in dealing with both an insurgency in the Palestinian Territories and a well-equipped militia in Lebanon, while at once retaining its readiness for operations against Iran and Syria, can be useful for the Indian military.

On the macro-level, the Indian military can learn from Israel’s methods for homeland defense. But when it comes to specific issues, Israel’s experience may not actually be able to contribute much in terms of India’s security environment. The following factors are worth noting before making any comparison between operations and campaigns undertaken by the militaries of India and Israel.

Offensive Vs. Defensive Strategies 

First, much of Israel’s military behavior has been derived in part from long-term military conflicts, and partly from Israel’s geographic and demographic limitations. Consequently, the Israeli military has developed a military doctrine that involves fighting battles outside Israel’s borders. On the other hand, the Indian posture has been largely defensive. When India’s military has considered offensive actions against Pakistan, executing these plans has been difficult.

Put simply, Israel’s national defense is offensive; it uses “pre-emptive strikes” as an important factor in its military strategy. This does not mesh with India’s long-standing learning on military conflict and contradicts the concept of peaceful diplomacy stressed by Indian leaders.

Israel constitutes less than 1 percent of India’s land mass and population. Israel has had wars with all its neighbors, and its relations with these neighbors have been tense due to territorial disputes. Israel not only lacks strategic depth, but also faces a real sense of geopolitical insecurity. This is an important reason for the country to push its defensive front beyond its borders, including offshore and into foreign territory. India, on the other hand, has sufficient strategic depth against its adversaries. After the Indian military’s surgical strikes, Modi even asserted that “India has not attacked anyone. It is neither hungry for any territory.”

Diplomatic Environments 

Israel and its opponents in the West Asian region rarely interact, as Tel Aviv only has diplomatic relations with two of its neighbors – Jordan and Egypt. Israel has not established diplomatic relations with Syria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Iraq, or other major regional powers, much less Iran. These relationships are all marked by long-standing hostility. For example, Israel often threatens air strikes on Iran, which is an obvious expression of Israel’s perennial search for security. On the other hand, India has always maintained formal diplomatic ties with both Pakistan and China, its two major rivals. Even during military conflicts, India did not expel their ambassadors. Similarly, India reduced its diplomatic presence in Beijing following the 1962 Indo-China War but did not end its relations with China. Indian leaders have to consider this overall foreign policy situation before considering any punitive action against state and non-state entities across Indian borders.

In addition, India’s policy toward its immediate neighbors has strong domestic dimensions, particularly in border provinces. Sporadic tensions within Sri Lanka impinge on Tamil Nadu, which has close ethnic links with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. As shown by India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka, New Delhi’s policies toward the ethnic conflict were fundamentally influenced by the political considerations in Tamil Nadu. This holds true for India’s policy on Bangladesh as well, where strong domestic input from the West Bengal is clearly visible. Even India’s policy toward Pakistan cannot remain unaffected by political developments in Kashmir. In this way, India’s policy toward its neighboring countries is shaped more by domestic political dynamics than by strict foreign policy calculations. Israeli policy is not constrained by such imperatives.

Relative Military Strength 

In terms of the quality of its weapons and its manpower, Israel continues to hold a decisive advantage over its Arab neighbors. Besides sophisticated weaponry, Israel has distinct psychological and strategic advantages over its rivals. By contrast, though it enjoys a certain military lead over Pakistan, India has no overriding strategic and psychological advantages. Moreover, India does not have any advantage over China. Although India has beefed up its offensive capabilities and has been acquiring new power projection capabilities, it does not have credible indigenous defense manufacturing facilities.

The Israeli military was able to rectify most of the deficiencies revealed in 1973 Arab–Israeli War and subsequently managed to attain several stunning achievements. The most famous special operation was executed in July 1976, when the elite Sayeret Matkal rescued Israeli passengers held hostage at the Entebbe airport in Uganda after their plane was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981 was another successful special operation. Although condemned in international circles at the time, the “pre-emptive strike” almost neutralized Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. These multiple triumphs have confirmed Israel’s military superiority beyond its borders.

On the other hand, the recently executed “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control in Kashmir provide one of the few notable achievements of the Indian army beyond India’s borders. The intention to use force is as important as the capacity to act, and the Indian army has continued to pursue defensive capabilities to enhance deterrence. Indian leadership has so far failed to display the political will to overcome policy paralysis in the defense sector. It will take some time for Indian military to develop the capability to act beyond India’s borders.

No discussion of Israeli military strength would be complete without any comment on the role played by the United States. Israel regards the U.S. as its principal supporter and ally, and the U.S. views Israel as a vital regional partner. The common interests of both countries are much greater than their differences. As a result, the United States provides Israel with its latest weaponry, while Israel applies its capacity for innovation in science and technology to manufacture new weapons. These trends provide explanations for the powerful Israeli military. On the other hand, India does not have access to either first-rate military hardware or critical diplomatic support from the world’s only superpower for any of its military responses.

Due to the factors discussed above, there is a greater tendency among Israeli leaders to threaten Israel’s neighbors with military action in public statements. These declarations are often reinforced by Israeli actions. The credibility of Israel’s determination to use its military power increased significantly after Menachem Begin came to power in 1980. His hawkish image abroad obviously enhanced Israeli deterrence. Begin was more willing to use force than his predecessors to achieve political ends beyond Israel’s borders. Present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of his predecessors’ so-called dovishness, also enjoys the reputation of being extremely tough on Hamas and Hezbollah.

Despite similar public statements, Modi has not yet acquired a hawkish image. He is yet to come up with an equivalent of the “Begin Doctrine,” which holds that Israel would act pre-emptively to counter any perceived threat to its existence. Due to the different circumstances in which the Israeli and Indian militaries operate, co-opting Israeli strategic culture might not be feasible for India.

Vinay Kaura is an assistant professor in the department of International Affairs and Security Studies, and Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Jaipur, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice,  Rajasthan, India.