"A victory by the Congress Party under the leadership of Sonia Ghandi in the elections to be held in India in May will not lead to any change in India's policy toward Israel.
By Amnon Barzilai
Lieutenant General J.F.R. Jacob. "Indian finds Israel to be a friend on which it can rely."
"A victory by the Congress Party under the leadership of Sonia Ghandi in the elections to be held in India in May will not lead to any change in India's policy toward Israel. The good relations will continue, and in certain area even grow deeper," assesses Lieutenant General J.F.R. Jacob, a former senior Indian army officer and a Jew, who yesterday completed a five-day visit to Israel. "If I had to rank the present-day level of relations between India and Israel," Jacob adds, "I would give them a 9 out of 10."
General Jacob has close ties to the National Party (BJP), which in the course of its four years in power has tightened relations with Israel and expanded defense cooperation with it. For many years, Jacob served as the party's security adviser. Nevertheless, he says, "based on my personal acquaintanceship with the current foreign minister, I see that the Congress Party, like the National Party, has an interest in maintaining very good relations with Israel." Jacob notes that it was the Congress Party that in early 1992 established diplomatic relations with Israel, "and since then, every Indian government has found Israel to be a friend on which they can rely."
Jacob doesn't think much of the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on public opinion in India. Although India is the largest democracy in the world, he says, "you have to remember that over 70 percent of Indian society is an agricultural population, which cares about its everyday struggles for existence and survival, and is not interested in foreign affairs."
General Jacob gained prominent fame in his homeland when he headed the Indian army forces that vanquished the Pakistani army in the war that broke out between the two countries in 1971, over control of the Bangladesh region (which after the war became an independent state, having formerly been East Pakistan). For his decisive role in the sweeping victory, Jacob was granted a commendation of merit.
Jacob is proud to say that his illustrious military career is the indelible proof of the tolerance of Indian society. That is the only way to explain how he succeeded as a young Jew, the scion of a family that migrated some 150 years ago from Iraq and settled in Calcutta, to be appointed to one of the most senior command positions in the army.
His full name is Jacob-Farj-Rafael Jacob. He was born in 1923. At age nine, his father, a successful businessman, sent him to a boarding school in the city of Darjeeling, about 500 kilometers from Calcutta. From then on, he only went home on school holidays. In 1941, at age 18, he enlisted in the Indian army, which was under British command. "My father was against my enlistment," he recalls, "but after I found out about the atrocities of the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews, I decided that I would be a military man." Upon his enlistment, Jacob joined an artillery brigade that was dispatched to North Africa to reinforce the British army against the German army under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The brigade arrived after the battles were over. From there, Jacob's unit was sent to Burma. "I wanted to fight Germans," says Jacob, "but in the end I fought for three years against the Japanese."
Did you ever meet Orde Wingate?
Jacob: "I was a major in the artillery when I met him in Burma. I know what your opinion of Wingate is, and on his contribution to training special forces in Palestine [the reference is to the Haganah's Special Night Squads - A.B.], but I have a different opinion of him as a commander. In Burma, he was assigned a post that he could not fill [sabotage of communications behind the Japanese army lines - A.B.] His military perception was mistaken. He was a disaster. I prefer not to say any more than that."
General Jacob is a graduate of artillery schools in England and the United States and specialized in advanced artillery and missiles. Prior to his appointment as commander of the Eastern Command (along the Bangladesh front), he commanded an infantry and artillery division. He retired from the military in 1978, following 37 years of service. Jacob tried his hand in the business world, but remained in close contact with government echelons. In the late `90s, he became the governor of the Goa province, and subsequently became the governor of the state of Punjab, which borders Kashmir.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, Jacob has paid many visits to Israel. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin invited him to attend the Jerusalem 3,000 celebrations. On his recent visit here, he even contributed items of Judaica from his parent's home to the Museum of Babylonian Jewry in Or Yehuda. His home in New Delhi has for years been a pilgrimage site for Israeli diplomats, researchers and security officers.
Why is India interested in Israeli military technology?
"Because Israel's know-how and technology are very advanced. But also because countries like the United States and England are not as generous as Israel. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Israel has proved that it is happy to work together with India."
This is a big change, compared with the way things were before relations were established between the two countries.
"Actually, there is a long history to what is now happening. As early as 1962, during the war between India and China, prime minister Nehru appealed to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, asking him for military aid. Already then, Israel sent military equipment, mainly 120 mm. mortar rounds. It happened again in the war against Pakistan in 1965 and in the war in 1971: Israel supplied India with mortar rounds, even 160 mm. rounds. And Israel once again proved its generosity in the military conflict with Pakistan in 1999; on that occasion, it also assisted in supplying ammunition, even bombs meant for the Mirage jets of the Indian air force."
How do you see the development of defense cooperation between India and Israel?
"The primary collaboration lies in the shared interest of both countries related to the war on terror, and everything that entails: Electronic fences, radar systems, sensors. Israel also assists with missiles. There is cooperative development and production of helicopters. And of course, the Phalcon surveillance aircraft; they are intended for early warning of a surprise attack by Pakistan or China."
India has also shown interest in purchasing Arrow missiles.
"I estimate that when the United States removes the obstacles, India will be highly interested in acquiring Arrow missiles for defense against ballistic missiles. We need them especially for protection against Pakistan."
In the wake of the talks now being held between leaders of the two countries, aren't relations between India and Pakistan better?
"India has been attacked several times by Pakistan. We cannot take risks, and be unprepared for a surprise attack. India should be prepared for both Pakistan and China. Therefore, there is a need for anti-missile missiles. Due to the Pakistani danger and the threat of launch of missiles with nuclear warheads. And it is important to mention: We don't want U.S.-made Patriot missiles, which are only capable of intercepting missiles at a low altitude of 20 kilometers [as opposed to the Arrow, which is designed to intercept missiles at an altitude of 100 kilometers or more - A.B.]."
Al-Qaida in Kashmir
In spite of the differences in size between India and Israel, there is a similarity in their geopolitical status. Both are surrounded by Muslim states, they have large Muslim minorities, and are threatened by Islamic terror. "India has no problem with Muslim countries," says Jacob. "It only has a problem with terror. And the trouble is that Pakistan has become an asylum for terror groups. The bin Laden people are active in Kashmir and we suspect that his people are active not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. [Pakistani President] Musharraf claims Pakistan does not support terror, but it is turning out that it does not have the ability, or the means, to supervise the terror groups. And I don't know what the truth is.
"In spite of everything, I say that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan is not expected because the two countries cannot afford such a thing. Basically, there is a balance of terror between the two."
Israelis in Goa? They don't help, they don't hurt
In his post as governor of Goa toward the end of the `90s, General Jacob had an opportunity to get to know other sides of the Israeli character. "I had a chance to meet with Israelis in Goa. These young people came there after lengthy army service, without money. All that they want is to live cheap, on the beach."
Were there any problems with them?
"Some of the Israelis are involved in drug dealing, but this is a small percentage. I can say the Israelis do not cause any real damage. But at the same time, their contribution to Indian tourism is insignificant because they do not spend money, since they do not have any.
"I would like to see Israelis coming not only to Goa or Puna, but to get to know the country, to learn its culture. At the same time, I understand them. They arrive in India immediately after army service. They want to have fun and to enjoy life and that's okay, too. I don't have any problem with it." (A.B.)