On 17 May 2020, the 35th government of Israel was sworn in after a crucial legislative election in March. It is touted as the largest Israeli cabinet to date comprising 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers.
Former Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt Gen (Retired) Benny Gantz, leader of the reformist Blue & White Party, agreed to a power-sharing compromise with Likud whereby Benjamin Netanyahu would continue his term in office as Prime Minister for an additional 18 months while Gantz would serve as Defence Minister and ‘Alternate Prime Minister.’ On 17 November 2021, Netanyahu would switch roles with Gantz and this rotation would continue till the end of this government’s term.
While the Defence Ministry portfolio will shuffle back and forth prompting questions about changing priorities and policies, the Foreign Affairs Ministry will be led without disruption by Lt Gen (Retired) Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’ fellow Blue & White member and another former IDF Chief of Staff. Interestingly, the Intelligence Ministry and Internal Security ministries would remain with Likud.
It is touted as the largest Israeli cabinet to date comprising 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers.
Since Modi’s first term in office (2014 onward), Israel’s defence-industrial complex has sold a variety of arms, ammunition and equipment to India for use against nuclear-armed China and Pakistan. Prominent among these include Heron armed drones (2016), Phalcon AWACS (2018), Griffin guided bombs (2018), Barak-1 surface to air short-range missiles (2018), Barak-8 air and missile defence system for Indian Navy (2018), SPIKE Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (2019), HAROP suicide drones (2019) and the SPICE-2000 glide bombs (2019). Israeli defence manufacturers such as Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, ELTA Systems, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and Israeli Weapon Industries have also signed several agreements with Indian companies for the joint production of defence equipment.
During the Pakistan-India escalation of early 2019, India deployed the Phalcon AWACS for surveillance missions and the famous ‘strike’ at Balakot in Pakistani territory witnessed the deployment of Israeli SPICE-2000 glide bombs.
Before Gantz agreed to a compromise with Netanyahu, it was speculated that an electoral majority for Blue & White Party could have prompted a review of Israel’s defence relations with India which have directly impacted South Asia’s security paradigm and directly facilitated Indian aggression against a small and comparatively ‘weak’ neighbour (Pakistan).
There were several reasons for this speculation; as far as defence priorities are concerned, Gantz has, on several occasions, stressed the ‘critical importance’ of maintaining adequate defence funding for the ‘Momentum Plan,’ an ambitious 5-year programme through which the IDF could achieve full-spectrum network-centric warfare capabilities down to the tactical level. Besides funding, this would involve multiple public-private partnerships with Israeli defence manufacturers while ensuring that sufficient needs of foreign importers are also met.
If we subtract the extraordinary personal bonhomie between Modi and Netanyahu, Indo-Israeli relations are more concerned with the defence economy instead of shared regional security concerns.
Secondly, Gantz has routinely emphasised his ‘neighbourhood-first’ policy to evaluate US President Donald Trump’s ‘Peace Plan’ and, in parallel, taking Arab countries on-board for a negotiated regional understanding so that Iran’s regional influence especially in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine can be kept in check. This would enable Israel to focus on internal reforms and meeting energy security requirements that are increasingly under-threat of Perceived Turkish aggression.
If we subtract the extraordinary personal bonhomie between Modi and Netanyahu, Indo-Israeli relations are more concerned with the defence economy instead of shared regional security concerns. Needless to say, when it comes to Iran, both countries have divergent interests and perspectives. Also, as far as Pakistan is concerned, no Israeli official or institution has publicly named it as a country of particular concern, excluding a few statements in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks which witnessed Israeli casualties.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who assumed office in 2014, views bilateral relations with India as a strategic asset. If he is de-seated in mid-2021 (end of term), the new President will be joined by future PM Gantz (November 2021 till January 2023) leaving only a year before Modi 2.0 comes to an end in 2024. The rotational premiership amongst Netanyahu and Gantz will most likely maintain, if not further boost, the current tempo of Indo-Israeli security relations.
Pakistan’s limited resources for conventional force modernisation and lack of access to high-end defence technologies especially in the post COVID-19 operational environment will further increase dependence on its strategic arsenal for Full Spectrum Deterrence under the ambit of Credible Minimum Deterrence.
If the aforementioned context is paired alongside persistent US geostrategic patronage, it is easy to see how the South Asian security paradigm will remain tilting heavily to India’s favour. Will the dynamic Gantz-Ashkenazi duo of experienced military commanders initiate a thorough review of this destabilising policy?
For many in Pakistan, this is a pertinent question.