India, Israel and I2U2 – Moving Towards a New ‘Transregional Order’

An extract from Hostile Homelands: the New Alliance Between India and Israel, by Azad Essa

Writer and journalist Azad Essa’s new book, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, (Pluto Press, 2023) is a forensic exploration of the changing relationship between India and Israel in the context of Hindutva, Zionism and new configurations of global capital and far-right politics. Below we publish an extract from the book which explains the implications of the new alliance known as “I2U2” (India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates) or the “West Asia Quad”.

Israel might have been the prize, but at the outset, Modi made it clear that the United Arab Emirates was also a central pillar of his foreign policy outreach. Having consolidated economic and political ties with the UAE (and the rest of the Gulf ) over several trips between 2015 and 2019, the UAE was only happy to reciprocate. In February 2019, the UAE’s Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed invited India to be a guest of honor at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s Council of Foreign Ministers in Abu Dhabi. In August, the UAE endorsed the Indian government’s decision to revoke the semi-autonomous status of Indian-occupied Kashmir and just under three weeks later, conferred Modi with the “Order of Zayed,” the highest civilian award in the Emirates. India’s Ministry of External Affairs said they understood the invitation as the “desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level . . . [and] as a milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE.” The UAE dubbed 2019 “the year of tolerance.”

With Pakistan’s growing affinity for Turkey and Qatar under former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the cooling of ties between Islamabad and Abu Dhabi, it became convenient for Modi, Netanyahu, and Abdullah bin Zayed to slide into what observers like Mohammed Soliman called an “unlikely and unprecedented Indo-Abrahamic transregional order.”112 “Trump’s major geo-political strategy was to construct a reactionary international alliance under the leadership of Washington,” noted intellectual Noam Chomsky told me. The alliance was semi-formalized, but the “Abraham Accords” had given it “one level of formalization.” And under this umbrella, Hungary, India, Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf Monarchies were all “natural members,” Chomsky said.

In October 2021, a second level of formality was added to the axis. First, the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, and the U.S., met in Washington. Here, the three countries set up two working groups focusing on “religious coexistence” and “water and energy.” A week later, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar traveled to Israel to meet Naftali Bennett, the tech billionaire and ultra nationalist who replaced Netanyahu as Israeli PM in June 2021. A relationship that had blossomed under Netanyahu was about to grow barbs. During his visit, Jaishankar and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid held an historic virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Al Nahyan. In a statement, the State Department said the four ministers discussed “expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security,” and appeared to confirm suspicions that the bloc would have significant geo-economic outcomes. Within this ecosystem, the UAE would provide the capital, Israel the technical expertise, and India would supply the labor, all under the watchful eye of Washington. The Hindu wrote that “significantly, neither the quadrilateral meeting, nor the trilateral meeting discussed the issue of Palestine.”

The making of a new power group left other media houses gushing over India’s new place in the world as well as Trump’s role in reaching this milestone. Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Print, opined that the Abraham Accords were directly responsible for the unprecedented soiree between the four slugger states. He credited Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner for the new opportunities afforded to India. “One door he (former Indian PM Narasimha Rao) kicked open when he upgraded India’s relations with Israel (in 1992) . . . the second door was kicked open by the Abraham Accords,” Gupta wrote, adding: “So thank Trump for that.” In Israel, the Jerusalem Post called the meeting “a silent revolution,” “a new age in Israel’s diplomatic relations,” and a “quiet formation of a group of like-minded countries.” Over the next six months, the UAE and India signed a free trade agreement, with a similar plan said to be on the cards for India and Israel, too. On 14 July 2022, the U.S.-Israel-UAE-India grouping was officially launched as the “I2U2” (India, Israel, the United States, and UAE) or the “West Asia Quad.” Within hours of its launch, it was reported that Haifa Port had been sold to the Indian company Adani Ports, operating on a joint- bid with Israeli company Gadot. Within days, the Indian flag was hoisted alongside the Israeli flag above the port.

To understand the logic and ambition of the quad, an event in New Delhi back in 2018 is instructive. During his visit to India, Israeli PM Netanyahu attended the third edition of the Indian-government-sanctioned Raisina Dialogues, run by New Delhi-based center-right think tank, Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Introducing Netanyahu, Sunjoy Joshi, Chairman of the ORF, waxed lyrical about the Israeli PM’s achievements:

“Prime Minister Netanyahu leads a nation that is no stranger to volatility. Yet he has successfully managed to provide growth, prosperity and security to its people in a turbulent region. From technological innovations that have ensured food and water security in a parched environment, to creating one of the most vibrant start-up ecosystems nurtured by a world class defence and technology industry, the prowess of Israel has made light of the greatest challenges to the security and well-being of its people.”

The ORF itself is a cunning project; sponsored in large-part by Reliance, one of India’s richest conglomerates, and built, as novelist Arundhati Roy described it, in the image of the Rockefeller Foundation, the ORF exerts an inordinate influence over Indian foreign policy. The ORF presents itself as politically agnostic but routinely adopts and promotes positions that are in support of large-scale neo-liberal policies that favor big capital and the military-industrial complex. That they partner with right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation in the U.S. is emblematic of their neocon agenda. Joshi’s casual remarks were therefore very intentional. They were deliberately engineered to revise the Israeli narrative in India to match Modi’s agenda. It rendered India’s previous “hostility” with Israel as an historical error. This was therefore a program of “course correction.”

At its core, however, the ORF was primarily invested in how the liaison could further stimulate unfettered capitalism. Israel was a vessel through which Indian corporations could liberate themselves. When Netanyahu finally spoke at the meeting, he predictably made a case for the centrality of the military and a free market economy in building a strong, successful and safe society. “The weak don’t survive,” Netanyahu told the audience. “The strong survive. You make peace with the strong. You make alliances with the strong. You are able to maintain peace by being strong . . . defence costs a great deal of money . . . [and so] the necessary requirements for innovation and ingenuity are free markets” he said. Netanyahu then characterized the pursuit of new allies as the next stage of his country’s evolution. Having established both military and economic power, he said, Israel was now pursuing political power. “By political power, I mean the ability to make political alliances and relationships with many other countries.” Political alliances and relationships might sound banal. But if you merge economic, political, and military power under the vestige of a supreme power, the United States, this was the Empire itself.

This, then, represents the next frontier of the India-Israel alliance as part of a larger ecosystem of illiberal states that see themselves as a frontline in a continuation of the War on Terror. There are already hints that Greece, Cyprus, and Saudi Arabia may join either informally or formally.120 In this ecosystem, these nations will look to achieve the following: expand the logic of the security state by sharing intel; jointly building military equipment; developing communication and surveillance software; flaunt nativist and jingoistic “self-reliance” as a matter of policy; and encourage the cross-pollination of investments, be it in the UAE, Indian-occupied Kashmir or the occupied Palestinian territories. The inclusion of India into this club, therefore, will expand the scale and scope of Israeli products and services, for sale in new and wider markets around the world. Netanyahu already referred to this cooperation when he said in 2017 that both countries were already working together in Africa.

The plan in India on matters of security and arms production with Israel, then, was three-fold: replicate and expand; domesticate production; and finally, export to countries in Africa and the Indian Ocean region. As it stands, Indian factories in conjunction with Israeli partners have already started producing: Israeli assault rifles like the Tavor, the Negev Machine Gun, and the Uzi submachine guns; Spike anti-tank guided missiles; as well as Skystriker drones. Though still smaller than other countries, Indian arms exports doubled between 2018 and 2019. India, then, was part of the deep entanglement of economic and political interests to keep private capital in charge and the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized perpetually pacified.

To exemplify the extent of this quagmire, here are three examples. Firstly, in June 2017, Reliance invested 20% in an “innovation technology incubator” partially owned by OurCrowd (60%), a crowdfunding platform in Jerusalem, and Motorola Solutions (20%). A spokesperson for Reliance said they were thrilled to be involved because they were “confident of Israeli start-ups offering unique value propositions by delivering next-gen digital services.” A year later, Netanyahu was hosted at the Reliance-sponsored ORF event urging Indians to invest in entrepreneurs and start-ups. None of this is banal. Motorola Solutions Israel, a subsidiary of Motorola Solutions, has been providing the Wide Area Surveillance System (WASS), known as MotoEagle since 2005, used in the illegal settlements and along the separation wall, along with other communication equipment supplied to the Israeli army. Reliance Defence and Engineering Ltd., said in early 2018 it would be producing Kalashnikovs with an Israeli company for the Indian army.

Secondly, in the dizzying destruction unleashed upon Gaza by the Israeli military over eleven days in May 2021, at least 260 Palestinians were killed (including 129 civilians, among whom 66 were children). In Israel, twelve people, of whom two were children, were killed by rockets fired from the blockaded Gaza Strip. Israel’s alliance with India paid handsome dividends. In June 2021, India, along with 13 other countries, abstained from voting at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (UNHRC) for an investigation into the latest bombardment of Gaza. Whereas it had voted for the UNHRC to launch an inquiry following the “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014 (and later refused to endorse the report which largely condemned Israel’s actions), fast forward to 2021, India wouldn’t even pretend to care about the details of Israeli crimes in Gaza during its eleven-day bombardment. This is what the “West Asian Quad” was really about: an investment in the preservation and survival of each other’s national project; a network and axis so economically, militarily, and politically interdependent, it becomes close to impossible to dismantle or rectify. Of course, the “West Asia Quad” is still “new” and ordinarily subject to changes, slow- downs, and fine tuning. India’s reluctance to join the chorus of condemnation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, was indicative of Delhi’s determination to refrain from throwing in its entire lot with the US. Russia was still India’s largest arm supplier and important supplier of energy, too. This relationship was not about to sever overnight. Washington, despite its reservation over India’s refusal to sanction Russia, is resolute in keeping India in its pocket for its other fight with China. So much so that U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which called on lawmakers to ensure that India is not sanctioned for continuing to purchase weapons from Russia, as directed by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Khanna’s amendment called for the law to be waived in the case of India. He also called for the U.S. government “to assist India accelerate its transition from Russian arms.” In July 2022, Congress passed the amendment.

And finally: In July 2021, a global consortium of media organizations revealed that more than 40 governments had used hacking software sold by the Israeli private intelligence firm NSO to target human rights activists, journalists and even world leaders around the globe. “The Pegasus Project” revealed that some 50,000 phone numbers in more than 45 countries were potentially targeted for surveillance by clients around the world, through software called Pegasus. The software was said to be so phenomenal, that once deployed, it would grant clients unfettered access to the phone’s camera, microphone, and data. It was the hijacking of smartphones, or what Indian novelist Arundhati Roy described as the spying on our most intimate selves. Up to 2,000 numbers in India had been targeted by Pegasus, with at least 300 verifiably infected. Among those on the list was Indian opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi and investigative journalist Swati Chaturvedi, the author of the award winning “I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army,” which revealed how the ruling BJP party had created troll farms to target, harass, and silence critics. Given that NSO only sells Pegasus to governments, it is not a question of whether India purchased software from NSO, but rather when the relationship between Modi and NSO began, and if Delhi would be held accountable for the breach. Neither the Indian government nor NSO have ever denied working with each other. The New York Times reported in January 2022, that Modi most likely bought the software in 2017, as part of a larger arms deal.134 The Indian government’s refusal to allow even a parliamentary debate about Pegasus was certainly proof that military relations between India and Israel were even deeper than publicly acknowledged and that the Indian government felt it was not compelled to reveal anything it deemed to be in the national interest.

In India, outrage over the government’s alleged patronage of Pegasus was mostly directed at the ruling BJP party for choosing to utilize a weapon meant to target “legitimate criminals” and “enemies of the state.” The criticism cleared the Israeli state of any wrongdoing, showing that under Modi, Israel had become so rapidly integral to the revitalization of Hindu India that an assault on Israel was tantamount to an assault on the Indian nation. Alternatively, Israel had become so completely normalized in the Indian imagination that it was possible for Indian liberals to be outraged by the hacking of their phones, but still be in favor of India’s close ties with the Israeli state. For example, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi described the surveillance as an act of “treason,” but he stopped short of asking why Israel sold the software to the Indian government in the first place. “Pegasus is classified by the Israeli state as a weapon and that weapon is supposed to be used against terrorists” he said, as if it was any less egregious for the Indian state to weaponize the phones of anyone else in the name of national security. Likewise, Indian journalist Chaturvedi, also a victim of the hacking saga, wrote in Haaretz: “For the sake of its relations with the democracy camp in India and around the world, Israel needs to shut down NSO and companies like it.” But the NSO and Pegasus aren’t separate from the Israeli state. They are the state. Pegasus is not the only weapon Israel exports to illiberal nations, dictators and authoritarians. This is its business model. This is the military-industrial state. And when it comes to India, it is only getting started.

India, Israel and I2U2