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Arms diplomacy was Israel’s legacy to earn diplomatic wins. But Pegasus got it a bad image

In Israel, Pegasus caused no public criticism. And like most people, Israelis think whatever the State does for national security is legit.

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The Indian government is neither denying nor admitting that it used Pegasus, a spyware tool for surveillance. This opacity is chutzpah! It is now a fact that the software trail was found in the phones of Indian citizens and that it came from a private Israeli company — the NSO Group — with the consent of the Israeli defence ministry during former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s term. The US has blacklisted the company for violating democratic ethos and individual rights. The government of Israel is trying not to take offence with its very strong ally for this adverse decision. Both the countries enjoy a special relationship and hence, the Pegasus episode is quite an unpleasant moment between them.

The State of Israel went through a precarious diplomatic life after it was established in 1948 because many Asian countries along with the Arab world were reluctant to engage with it or have full diplomatic relations. The ideologically divided world of the Cold War era also chose to keep its distance from Israel; like India and China. India only recognised Israel in 1950 and took another 42 years to establish full diplomatic relations with it. Israel endured long diplomatic isolation from the non-Western world.


Also read: NSO Group of Pegasus fame on US trade blacklist for ‘malicious cyber activities’


Partners in ‘arms’

Security, survival, and economic development were some of the key goals for Israel — a country that had almost no natural resources like oil and gas or even enough drinking water. The denial of diplomatic normalisation in Asia and Africa was a difficult challenge, but Israel lived through it. One of the ways it worked around this problem was by becoming technologically advanced and economically self-sufficient. It also figured that arms and sophisticated means of warfare might make it valuable to others in the long run. Hence, arms diplomacy became an effective approach for Israel to build political relations.

Israel has been generous in allowing arms to those who did not have official diplomatic ties with it. Its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was more than happy to send supplies ‘with the fullest sympathy and understanding of the government and people of Israel’ to India when Jawaharlal Nehru sought his help for ammunition and arms during the war with China in 1962.

Receiving arms from Israel was controversial then, much less now, so it was requested that it send the ship without its flag on top. But when Ben-Gurion said, “No flag, no weapons,” India received the much-needed supply with the official flag of Israel.


Also read: India-Israel-US-UAE grouping ‘not against China’, can’t rule out trade deal, Israeli envoy says


Pegasus — the myth and the reality

Pegasus is a sort of weapon (such as the Negev light machine guns that Israel sent to India in 2020) and India might benefit from having the software as there are many external threats to its national security. However, international investigation around Pegasus has revealed that there are more dangerous implications in store. The Indian government may have used it against political opponents, civil society members, and journalists. It has garnered a negative image for Israel globally.

Pegasus is a product of the Israeli ecosystem of innovation, cyber security — quite an essential part of national security — and military support system. Like most arms companies, the NSO Group is a private company that sells its products to government bodies all over the world, and it does so with the knowledge and prior permission from the Israeli ministry of defence. While Pegasus stories dominated international news and received harsh criticism from human rights organisations across the globe, they did not cause any public criticism within Israel. The State is a military-security-centred one and most Israelis, like most citizens elsewhere, think that whatever the State does for the sake of national security is legit.


Also read: Indian targets showed up on Pegasus list after Modi’s 2017 Israel visit: Haaretz tech editor


Selling point is ‘creativity’, not democratic values

Arms diplomacy is still a political and diplomatic asset — besides amassing huge commercial gains as bonuses — for the larger establishment of the State of Israel. According to the defence ministry, 70 to 80 per cent of Israel’s defence production is for export purposes. Government-to-government sales rose from $580 million to $911 million in 2020. The arms trade is common, and Israel is not an exception to have earned money and prestige with its defence technologies. However, some of its arms’ supplies have violated the values of democracy and human rights, such as in the case of Myanmar and Azerbaijan, where the undemocratic rulers bought Israeli arms to suppress democratic demands. Another is Saudi Arabia, which used the same tactic to attack dissidents.

States care about their image and promote their unique role in international politics. The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs uses the tagline ‘Spirit of Creativity’ to present the idea of Israel. Arms sale that violates democratic values does not add to Israel’s soft power. Rather, it paints the picture of a militaristic, machismo and realpolitik State. The image problem with Pegasus becomes inevitable, as it violates the basic principles of liberty and individual freedom. Arms diplomacy might have helped Israel create military and strategic ties with a number of Arab and Asian states to normalise diplomatic relations, and its partnerships with India and China attest to that. But Pegasus is challenging the idea that weapons alone can build relationships.

In post-Netanyahu Israel, the new Foreign Minister and Prime Minister-designate Yair Lapid recently wrote on his vision for Israel. According to him, “For about a decade, Israeli foreign policy was mired in the morose idea that the international community is a Darwinist environment.” He is also worried that even Israel’s most prized diplomatic relationship with the US — more with the Democratic Party — is under stress. To him, “American and European college students [he could say the same about Indian students] aren’t demonstrating against us because of ‘interests’ but because of moral and public-diplomacy failures.” He also thinks that the future of Israel would be better if it steps away from ‘pessimism’ in diplomacy.

He advises Israelis to think about the idea of Israel and appeals, “We must create a diplomatic umbrella to protect us on rainy days. Accepting responsibility, being open to ideas, making decisions based on facts (even when they’re unpleasant), clearly understanding how others see us, being willing to accept criticism, avoiding self-pity and observing human rights”.

It would be interesting to see him as prime minister and whether he can pave the way for a better Israel.

Dr Khinvraj Jangid teaches at Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. You can email him at khinvraj@gmail.com Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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