Israel Keeps Mum About India's Botched Rescue

The smoke has finally cleared after last week's botched hostage rescue at the Nariman House Jewish center in Mumbai, but in some Israeli security circles, the sniping has started anew. Defense Minister Ehud Barak complained last week that India's commandos hadn't performed up to Israeli standards. Other Israeli counterterror experts griped that the operation had taken far too long to unfold. "They should have come from many angles—through windows, through walls," says Lior Lotan, an Israeli security consultant who once commanded the military's hostage-negotiation squad. "I didn't see any deception, any diversion, any surprise element at all." Israeli paramedics reported that some of the hostages appeared to have been killed accidentally by their would-be rescuers; their stories were splashed across the front page of the local newspaper in Jerusalem.

The Israeli-Indian contretemps looked, at least at first, like the beginnings of a diplomatic headache. But then, even as Israel was burying its victims earlier this week, the controversy simply disappeared. Security types started backpedaling, and Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went out of their way to tamp down the criticism. Privately, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials were livid about the accusations. "These guys are mouthing off," complained one senior Foreign Ministry source, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. "We're really upset about these people." Part of the reason for the frustration, aside from the desire to show solidarity during a difficult time: Israel is one of India's top weapons suppliers—a lucrative relationship that has been growing rapidly since the early 1990s. "We're talking about billions of dollars," says the Foreign Ministry source.

For more than 40 years after the founding of the Jewish state, India—home to more than 150 million Muslims—resisted formal diplomatic ties with Israel. India wanted to preserve relationships with key Persian Gulf countries, and the Soviet Union took care of most of its defense needs. After the 1991 Arab-Israeli peace talks in Madrid, however, India softened its stance; the two countries formalized relations the next year. As the Soviet Union collapsed, India also needed to look elsewhere for defense links. (Israel and Russia now alternate as India's top arms provider.) According to a report published this past summer by Harvard's Belfer Center, in the five years ending in 2007, Israel sold India more than $5 billion worth of arms, including spy drones, motion sensors and AWACS planes. Last year, the two countries struck a $2.5 billion deal to jointly develop a surface-to-air missile system—the largest such contract in Israel's history, according to the study.

The irony is that, until now, at least, Israel's training of Indian forces in its defense specialty, counterterrorism, seems to have been limited. "The Israeli-Indian relationship is more about technology and equipment and less about other activities," says Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Israeli military chief of staff. Amos Yaron, a former director-general of Israel's Defense Ministry who traveled frequently to Delhi, says there is "some intelligence cooperation" with India but no joint military training that he is aware of. Yet there are some signs of tightening ties. In 2002, the Israeli Foreign Ministry convened a body called the India-Israel Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism. This past September an Israeli general, Avi Mizrahi, also visited India to discuss the possibility of joint counterterrorism training.

For now, though, most of the Israeli-Indian counterterror talks are nongovernmental. Efraim Inbar, director of Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, leads a regular workshop for a handful of Israeli and Indian security officials and academics. At the last meeting, in Delhi, they compared experiences dealing with low-intensity conflict, lessons of the 2006 Lebanon War and strategy and tactics for small wars. Still, Israel's lessons don't necessarily apply to Indian operations. "Part of their problem is that they're dealing with locals who want to integrate into society," says Inbar. "For us it's usually outsiders." He adds that Indian forces have a "more patient" and "defensive" approach than their Israeli counterparts.

Considering the religious sensitivities of the region, any actual military exercises would need to be developed in a "discreet framework," says Lotan. "This kind of cooperation needs to be secret if it can be." After last week's Mumbai attacks, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called her Indian counterpart to offer Israel's assistance, but Indian officials "said they don't need anything," according to Andy David, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. Lotan says he also sent word through "official channels" offering counterterror expertise but didn't receive a reply. Some Israelis, for their part, are also wary of any kind of joint exercises. "I don't think it will happen," says Yaron. "It costs a lot of money and a lot of effort. It's not the first priority right now." In the meantime, as far as the Israeli Foreign Ministry is concerned, the most helpful thing the country's counterterror specialists can do now? Simply hold their tongues.