Apprehensive Allies: India and Israel in the Obama Era

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    youngindian Senior Member Senior Member

    May 6, 2009
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    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    Apprehensive Allies:
    India and Israel in the Obama Era

    by S. Samuel C. Rajiv

    BESA Center for Strategic Studies

    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: India and Israel seem to be up against a "pragmatic,"
    non-ideological American administration under President Obama whose policy
    initiatives and proclivities have the potential to cause friction in their
    respective bilateral interactions, despite the best of intentions. Each of
    the two countries is suffering from a bout of "Bush Blues" since Obama took
    over in Washington. The issues in contention range from strategic concerns
    like Pakistan and Iran, to nuclear non-proliferation and economic factors
    like outsourcing of jobs. Given the huge stakes involved in the interactions
    among these three vibrant democracies, concerted efforts must be made to
    minimize the negative fallout of any differences they might have, while
    striving towards mutually acceptable solutions.


    Having enjoyed a relative period of warmth (Israel) and extra-ordinary
    growth (India) in their respective bilateral relationships with the United
    States under a very ideological and "personal" President George W. Bush,
    India and Israel seem to be suffering from a bout of "Bush Blues" since
    President Obama took over the reins of power. Public and elite opinion in
    both the countries seems to have veered around to the view that India and
    Israel, respectively, are in for a hard time under this more "pragmatic"
    president, who does not always share the perspectives that privileged India
    and Israel under the former administration.

    Bush and India: Ideological and Strategic Drivers

    The Bush administration followed favorable policies towards India and Israel
    for a variety of reasons. Just the fact that India is the world’s largest
    democracy elicited a strong reaction from Bush and a different pecking
    order. Bush courted the country aggressively, so much so that his second
    Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice even promised active assistance to help
    India achieve great power "nirvana." These moves were geared towards
    configuring India to more effectively counter America’s future competitor,
    the Chinese dragon, for dominance in Asia. New Delhi was however patently
    uncomfortable with such formulations, given its own burgeoning trade
    relations with its behemoth neighbor.

    The "New Framework for the US-India Defense Relationship" signed on June 28,
    2005, and the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal of July 18, 2005, are loud
    symbols of efforts to forge an enhanced strategic partnership between the
    two countries. The role played by the Indian-American community in pushing
    the deal through the various branches of the US government also signified
    the new-found status of one of the most vibrant, politically active, and
    economically affluent émigré community in the United States.

    Obama and India: Issues of Contention and Concern

    The unwritten perception in India during the 2008 US presidential campaign
    once Hillary Clinton – perceived to be very pro-India – was knocked out of
    the Democratic Party nomination race, was that the Republican Senator John
    McCain was a better bet to continue Mr. Bush’s favorable policies towards
    the country. (This among many other themes rings true for Israel as well).
    In the few months that President Obama has been in power, while the above
    strategic drivers continue to operate to varying degrees, certain "issues of
    contention" have been causing concern to Indian policy makers and public
    opinion. Prominent among these are listed below.


    The economic crisis has brought to the fore issues regarding the effect that
    outsourcing of jobs to countries like India has on the domestic job market.
    Unveiling new tax reforms at an event at the White House on May 5, 2009,
    Obama noted that the current American system encouraged firms to pay "lower
    taxes if you create a job in Bangalore, India, than if you create one in
    Buffalo, New York." The strong Indian outsourcing industry, which had
    notched up exports worth over $45 billion during 2008-09, is expected to
    grow to $60 billion by 2010 and be worth over $200 billion by 2020
    (according to McKinsey and Company). Given the fact that over 60 percent of
    its current exports are to the US, there has been justifiable concern over
    the likely negative impact of any protectionist measure by the Obama


    The increased dependence on Islamabad by the US administration to prosecute
    its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan has
    also been a cause of worry for India. Increased monetary support (exceeding
    $1.5 billion per year), the supply of sophisticated weaponry (night vision
    equipment, laser-guided bombs for F-16 fighter jets) among other factors
    have brought heartburn to New Delhi, despite efforts by Washington to
    assuage India’s concerns and continued high-level engagement, exemplified by
    the visit of Secretary Clinton in July.

    President Obama’s "AfPak" strategy finally recognizes the imperative of
    dealing with the terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan to have any measure
    of success in Afghanistan, given the tribal, ethnic and organic linkages
    with Islamic radicals operating with impunity on either side of the border.
    However, despite the Pakistani Army taking on extremist forces in certain
    parts of its territory, official instruments of the Pakistani state continue
    to bleed India using these same forces.

    This is exemplified by the fact that cadres of the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT),
    chiefly responsible for the terrible Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008,
    during which even a Jewish cultural center was attacked, could not have
    carried such an elaborate and daring attack with military-precision without
    the active support and connivance of the Pakistani military and intelligence
    agencies like the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While the US on its
    part has repeatedly urged Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the terror
    attacks to justice, the fact of the matter is that the chief of the LeT,
    Hafiz Saeed continues to be a free man, despite enormous evidence provided
    to Pakistan by India.

    Climate Change

    Climate change, apart from nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, are
    some of the key policy initiatives being vigorously pursued by the Obama
    administration. These issues have enormous potential to become contentious
    in the India-US bilateral relationship. On climate change for instance,
    India has repeatedly stated its inability to take on any legally-binding
    emissions reduction targets in a post-Kyoto framework, despite continued US
    pressure to do so. New Delhi has also pointed out that it has a minimal
    carbon footprint (less than 4 percent of global emissions), one of the
    lowest per capita emissions in the world (less than 2 tons per annum) and
    that its developmental priorities are huge.

    Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament

    Like Israel, there is also the likelihood that India will come under
    increasing pressure to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) ahead
    of the NPT Review Conference in May 2010. The statement by US Assistant
    Secretary of State Rose Goettemoeller on May 5, 2009 that "universal
    adherence to the NPT itself – including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North
    Korea, remains a fundamental objective of the United States" had both
    countries cued up.

    Indian objections to the NPT however are huge, given its discriminatory
    nature and lack of effective mechanisms to prevent breakout states from
    achieving nuclear weapon capabilities, among other issues. Indian concerns
    regarding nuclear disarmament also remain. Achieving comprehensive and
    universal nuclear disarmament, which has been India’s long-held objective
    instead of any regional or unilateralist measures, is still a long way from
    fruition, if at all. Continuing and robust nuclear force modernization
    programs of nuclear weapon states are also a huge stumbling block in any
    effort to convince New Delhi of the merits of arguments regarding FMCT and

    Bush and the Middle East: The "Mantra" of Forced Democratization

    President Bush pursued his democratization agenda in the Middle East
    vigorously. The war in Iraq was prosecuted as an effort to establish a
    functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and was held as an
    example of what could potentially be achieved in the broader region. The
    dysfunctionalities of the region by the Bush administration were seen as
    symptomatic of the ills which aided disgruntled and relatively-educated
    young men to arm themselves with box cutters and hijack planes and fly them
    into symbols of American economic and military power, on September 11, 2001.
    These young men who died for the "holy" cause of jihad were of course
    followers of extreme Islamic radical ideology who diagnosed the origins of
    the ills facing their region in the policies of the world’s only superpower,
    conveniently side-stepping the cruel lack of development of economic and
    human resources, the presence of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, lack of
    freedom and human rights, among other stark deficiencies. The alleged
    step-motherly treatment towards Israel and lack of progress on the issue of
    the Palestinian homeland was a prominent festering sore. The presence of
    Western infidels, in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War, who
    violated their religion’s sacred grounds, only added to the combustible

    Bush and Israel: Belated Push for Peace and a "Long Leash"

    Caught up with the global "war" on terror and the attendant twin wars in
    Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration became actively involved in
    nudging the protagonists towards a peace deal only in the later period of
    its second term. Its efforts accordingly did not meet with much success,
    despite the Annapolis process of November 2007 and Condoleeza Rice’s belated
    hectic shuttle diplomacy.

    The Bush administration was also seen as having given a long leash to
    Jerusalem on its defense and foreign policy agenda, be it in the Lebanon War
    of 2006 or the Gaza offensive, Operation "Cast Lead," which began in late
    December 2008, in the dying moments of the Bush presidency. Analysts noted
    that the 22-day offensive, which was wound down exactly a day before Barack
    Obama was sworn in as the new US president, was geared towards utilizing the
    goodwill of the previous administration as well as starting on a clean page
    for an administration whose policy proclivities could not be pre-judged.

    Obama and Israel: Positive Vibes but Strong Concerns
    West Bank Settlements and a Palestinian State

    Mr. Obama, in his campaign speeches and in his pronouncements after taking
    over, has reiterated the importance of the relationship with Israel and his
    administration’s desire to maintain and strengthen it. In the Cairo speech
    of June 4, 2009 for instance, Obama pointed out the “unbreakable” bond
    shared with Israel, based upon cultural and historical ties. Despite these
    positive vibes however, the administration’s "strong" messages regarding the
    construction of settlements in the West Bank and the establishment of a
    Palestinian state and "rapprochement" moves towards Tehran have generated
    concerns in Jerusalem that Obama may be veering away from a pro-Israel stand
    on issues of strategic interest to it.

    The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on its part has not
    entertained American pressures on a complete freeze to the settlement
    building activity. In his landmark speech at the BESA Center on June 14,
    2009, Mr. Netanyahu opposed a total freeze on the settlements but for the
    first time accepted the imperative of the establishment of a Palestinian
    state, though one which will necessarily have to be demilitarized. He also
    reiterated that it was imperative that the Palestinians and the Arabs
    recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state, and asserted that an undivided
    Jerusalem will have to be the capital of the Jewish state.

    Mr. Obama’s Special Envoy to the region George Mitchell meanwhile has been
    actively involved in hammering out differences and trying to fashion a
    mutually acceptable platform around which all sides in the dispute could
    come together. As of this writing however, there seem to be more
    imponderables than hope. These include the continued disarray in the
    Palestinian ranks and uncertainties regarding the prospective role of Hamas,
    whose constitution continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish


    In his path-breaking direct appeal to the Iranian people of March 20, 2009
    for instance, Obama held out the prospect of “engagement that is honest and
    grounded in mutual respect.” The reactions from the Iranian leadership to
    that offer have however not been positive. The re-elected Iranian President
    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other officials have not only rejected these
    overtures but have pointed out the difficulties involved in coming to terms
    with the long history of ill will and hatred shared between the two
    countries. US officials on their part have been insisting that crucial areas
    in which Washington could have a constructive interaction with Iran was on
    the need to stabilize Iran’s western as well as its eastern neighbors – Iraq
    and Afghanistan, the latter currently being America’s primary foreign policy

    Despite Israel’s strong concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program, Washington
    has proved to be a less than interested party in actively pursuing a
    military solution. Though President Obama and his officials have stated that
    no options were off the table in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions,
    his administration has privileged efforts at finding a negotiated solution
    to the impasse, and has called for “tough but direct diplomacy” to convince
    Iran to forgo its nuclear option, much to Jerusalem’s chagrin. Secretary
    Clinton has even suggested that American nuclear umbrella was sufficient to
    protect its allies in the Middle East in the event of Iran acquiring the
    nuclear bomb. While the efficacy of extended nuclear deterrence is open to
    debate, Israel, despite its strong diplomatic offensive (and possible covert
    attempts) to pre-empt a possible Iranian nuclear bomb, has been taking steps
    to ensure that it has robust deterrence capabilities.

    An Assessment

    As the above discussion indicates, on issues of strategic concern to both
    the countries, Israel and India seem to be on the same boat, fighting
    against a strong "Obama current" (or rather, different boats but up against
    the same "problematic" current). Given the huge stakes involved, these three
    vibrant, multi-faceted, functioning democracies and pluralistic societies
    should strive towards mutually-acceptable solutions on issues of concern in
    their bilateral interactions sooner than later. Only then will the full
    potentialities of their bilateral relationships be achieved for each other’s
    mutual benefit and for ensuring regional stability.

    Mr. Samuel Rajiv is a researcher specializing in nuclear and Middle East
    issues at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi,
    India. He was a visiting research scholar at the BESA Center in 2005-06.

    IMRA - Tuesday, August 11, 2009 Apprehensive Allies: India and Israel in the Obama Era

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