In a recent seminar hosted by a Pakistan-based think tank, it was highlighted yet again that Islamabad is concerned with growing India-Israel cyber cooperation. The discussants stressed greater Iran-Pakistan cooperation in cybersecurity, information technology (IT), and telecom domains, to benefit from mutual experiences, and mutual threat perceptions.
This is not the first instance when concern over the India-Israel partnership has been aired in Pakistan.
In July 2021, the Foreign Office Islamabad released a statement raising “serious concern over media reports about India allegedly eavesdropping on foreigners, including PM Imran Khan, using Israeli spyware Pegasus”. Without presenting any credible evidence, the statement condemned “India’s state-sponsored, continuing and widespread surveillance, and spying operations in clear breach of global norms of responsible state behaviour”.
Last month, reports over similar concerns in Beijing emerged when the Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz made his official visit to India, marking 30 years of India-Israel diplomatic relations and security cooperation.
The Israeli minister met his Indian counterpart and discussed strengthening security cooperation through advancing joint military training, and deepening research and development (R&D) in technological and weapons domains.
With the ‘Quad West’ (or the West Asia Quad or Quad 2.0) emerging ‘out of the blue’ in 2021, concerns in Beijing and Islamabad have further escalated. The grouping brings together India, Israel, UAE, and the US, to form an “international forum for economic cooperation”. As the quartet seeks to unite technology, resources, and skills to build infrastructure and collaborate in the security domain, new dynamics will shape regional cyber politics.
The Evolving India-Israel Cyber Partnership
India-Israel relations have undergone tectonic changes in the last decade. The relations have increasingly warmed up since the Indian Prime Minister’s historic visit to Israel in 2017, making him the first Indian PM to do so. The two leaders decided to strengthen the Indo-Israeli relationship in various domains, with cybersecurity recognized as a key pillar.
Since 2017, partnerships in the start-up ecosystem have grown leaps and bounds between the two nations. The ecosystems in India and Israel are viewed as feeding off each other’s abilities in R&D and innovation, market potential, and technological prowess. While India presents Israel as a significant market for its products and technology, for India, Israel is an excellent partner in improving capabilities in strategic innovation and product development.
India and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cybersecurity cooperation in January 2018. The MoU aimed to develop cooperation in the field of cyber security, expand Human Resource Development, promote Business-to-Business cooperation, collaborate in the field of cyber security resilience, and facilitate industrial summits. The agreement resulted in several seminars, meetings and visits among industry and government officials.
In July 2020, the growing Indo-Israeli cyber partnership resulted in an MoU on Operational Cooperation in the Field of Cybersecurity, between the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), and Israel’s National Directorate of Cybersecurity (INCD). The agreement “laid down the framework for dialogue, cooperation in capacity building, mutual exchanges of best practices in the field, and for facilitating regular exchanges”.
More recently in June 2022, the two nations have taken the partnership ahead with an MoU to further deepen defence cooperation “in a manner that harnesses Israel’s ‘technological and operational experience’, together with India’s ‘extraordinary development and production capabilities’”.
Pakistan-China worries and response
It is argued that Israel understands that threats emerging from China and Pakistan in the cyber domain could “induce India to purchase Israeli cyber and border-defence technologies”. In the recently held meeting between the Indian and Israeli defence ministers, India-China security tensions are said to be among the main issues discussed.
On the other hand, Pakistan still does not recognize Israel. The former Pakistani PM Imran Khan had remarked that if Pakistan recognizes Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights, it will have to give up Kashmir as well.
In this light, Pakistan has long viewed the Indo-Israeli relationship with contempt. India and Israel have partnered for training Indian special forces in counter-terrorism, and Israel has trained and equipped Indian police officers and security forces in Kashmir with surveillance technology.
In recent years, several reports have highlighted that cyber threats to India are exponentially growing, primarily due to cyberattacks from Pakistan and China. The two have deepened cooperation in cyberspace and it is suggested that Pakistan has emerged as a proxy for China’s malicious intent in spreading anti-India propaganda on social media platforms. In a way, India faces a ‘two-front war’ in cyberspace – based on cyber espionage, disinformation campaigns, and threats to critical infrastructure.
But it is not just India that has been troubled by these adversaries in cyberspace. In August 2021, Israel witnessed its first coordinated China-linked cyberattack. According to the international cybersecurity firm FireEye, the attack hit dozens of Israeli private and government organizations. The lead investigator remarked that the goal of cyberattacks originating from China is “not necessarily always to steal the intellectual property” and might be to seek business information to influence decisions.
As India-Israel cyber partnership grows, both on the governmental and industrial levels, an increased frequency of similar cyberattacks can be expected.
In August 2021, the hackers attempted to conceal their identities by using Farsi in parts of the code used in the cyberattacks, thus masquerading as Iranians. As Israel-Iran relations remain complex and hostile, this phenomenon shows the exploitation of geopolitical aspects in the cyber domain.
With the US-backed Abraham Accords in 2020, Israel’s relations with the UAE have normalized, followed by similar peace treaties with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
For Iran and Pakistan, the accords present a strategic threat. For China, the success of these peace agreements marks the US’ return to geopolitical prominence in the West Asian region.
While Pakistan-UAE relations were strong in the past, Islamabad’s attempts towards creating a rival bloc with Turkey, Iran and Malaysia have complicated the relationship.
The ‘Quad West’ benefits from the Abraham Accords, along with India’s warm relations with both the UAE and Israel. With the US acting as a facilitator, the West Asian region has once again transformed into an avenue for geopolitical competition between great and emerging powers.
Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan are increasingly wary of the unfolding dynamics of the Quad West. Pakistan is now trying to court Iran into a cyber partnership, which according to Islamabad, will be based on mutual threat perceptions and benefits.
While Israel and Iran have engaged in cyberattack campaigns on each other for a long, it has been reported in recent months that Indian government departments are now increasing facing cyberattacks from Iran-based groups as well.
The Way Ahead
As ties between Tel Aviv and New Delhi evolve, concerns are escalating in Islamabad and Beijing. To counter the emerging Quad West, Pakistan and China now seek partnerships with Iran and Turkey. However, while the Indo-Israeli partnership is based on mutual growth and trust, Pakistan seeks to build partnerships based on fabricated threat perceptions.
In West Asia, India has for long balanced its ties with all the stakeholders. India has not abandoned the Palestinian cause and has often voted against Israel in the United Nations. While India-Iran relations have seen ups and downs in recent years, the two traditionally close partners have looked to reset ties.
Lastly, there needs to be a consideration that Pakistan’s support for terrorism and Chinese cyber campaigns and espionage are well-known phenomena across the world. Instead of courting third countries into partnerships based on fabricated threat perceptions, altering their modus operandi is suggested.
(Views are Personal)