Terror Ties Israel and India
By: Amy Waldman
New York Times | Tuesday, September 09, 2003
Ariel Sharon plans to become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit India since both nations were carved from the former British empire more than 50 years ago.
For India, which established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, Mr. Sharon's plans for a visit — scheduled for Monday, though it is not yet known how today's developments in the Middle East will affect his plans — will be the most public acknowledgment yet of how far its foreign policy has shifted from its once unequivocal support for Palestinian self-determination.
While it still mouths that support, which one senior official called a "cardinal point of our foreign policy" this week, it is now balanced by an active, and growing, friendship with Israel. While back-channel and security ties between the countries existed even before normalized relations, India is only overtly playing up the alliance now, including deepening military ties.
The relationship has been strengthened by an ideological affinity for Israel by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party that leads the Indian government, and especially by the perception of a shared threat in Islamic terrorism.
"Terror is the major issue and challenge for both countries," said Yaron Mayer, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here. "We understand each other and we see each other in similar terms."
The two countries share intelligence and have a counterterrorism working group. Indian special forces are being trained in Israel. India's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, suggested in a May speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington that India, Israel and the United States should unite to fight the common threat of terrorism.
But India and Israel are also bound these days by commerce. Nonmilitary trade reached $1.27 billion in 2002, up from $202 million in 1992. India has also been spending an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually on Israeli military technology and equipment.
Military analysts estimate that Israel now rivals and possibly exceeds Russia as India's largest military supplier, while India is now among Israel's largest clients. Top executives from both private and government-owned Israeli military industries will accompany Mr. Sharon on his visit.
India floundered in the post-Cold-War years as the Soviet Union, long its major military supplier, fragmented. In 1999, when India began spending seriously on equipment, Israel became a critical source, not least because it had specialized in upgrading Russian equipment.
For Israel, said Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, "it's an amazing success story in a very short time."
Israeli munitions have proved particularly valuable for India as it tries to bulk up its conventional defenses against its nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan. Israel has supplied India with surface-to-air missiles, avionics, sophisticated sensors to monitor cross-border traffic, remotely piloted drones, and artillery.
The United States and others restricted technology exports to India in response to its 1998 nuclear tests, making Israel's responsiveness all the more welcome here.
India and Israel are currently negotiating the transfer of three Phalcon airborne early-warning radar, command, and control systems — with an estimated $1 billion price tag — after the United States lifted its objection this year to the sale. The Phalcon, long coveted by both India and China, is a long-range Israeli-made system that will be fitted onto Russian-built military transport planes.
This week, India's Cabinet Committee on Security also approved the purchase of a $97 million Israeli electronic warfare system for ships. And India wants Israel's Arrow missile defense system, although that would require American approval, which has yet to come through.
The Israel-India security relationship has caused unease in Pakistan, where officials warned that the American go-ahead for the Phalcon sale would accentuate imbalances in conventional weapons in South Asia.
In what analysts say would be an attempt to open its own supply line from Israel, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has even speculated publicly recently about normalizing relations with Israel.But Uday Bhaskar of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi predicted that once the American arms market opened more fully to India, the Israeli share of the Indian market would lessen. "Israel is not doing us any favors," he noted. "They drive a very hard bargain."
Some also express concern at what they see as the relationship's one-sided nature. "It's a patron-client relationship rather than a relationship between equals," said Mr. Chellaney.
Within India's fading but still present left, meanwhile, Mr. Sharon's proposed visit has caused vocal opposition. A statement signed by eight political leaders, among them a former prime minister, described it as "an insult to India's longstanding tradition of unequivocal support to the struggle of the Palestinian people for national liberation and an independent state."
India, which was a leader of the Nonaligned Movement — composed heavily of Arab states and founded in 1961 as a forum for nations that were neither pro-American nor pro-Soviet — was the first non-Arab state to recognize Palestinian independence. It was also the last major country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.
One Indian official said that India still recognized Palestine and Yasir Arafat as its legitimate president.
But the prospect of the high-profile visit — Mr. Sharon will be accompanied by three cabinet ministers, 30 businessmen and as many journalists — has raised concern among some Indian Muslims, who fear the largely unspoken admiration among some Indian leaders for Israel's tough approach to its security.
For decades, fear of alienating its Muslim population helped prevent India from normalizing relations, historians say, and Mr. Chellaney, for one, argues that India should still exercise caution. "In the Islamic world, it's being seen as a Jewish-Hindu axis against Islam," he said.
India has other reasons to avoid alienating the Arab world. About three million Indians work in Arab states in the Persian Gulf, and those states supply India with about one-fourth of its oil. So India has also established what one senior official calls a "structured dialogue" with the Arab League to explain the India-Israel relationship.
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, argues that "the fact that this is public, and they are interested in making it public and visible, is a recognition that opposition to ties with Israel is no longer significant."
C. Raja Mohan, the author of "Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India's New Foreign Policy," said that Israel was only one of a number of new alliances India had cultivated over the last decade in "a pragmatic, interest-based policy."
There was no reason, he said, for India not to adopt the balanced approach of other major powers like Russia, China, or the United States. "Everyone deals with both of them," he said.
The coherence of interests between India and Israel, which both have large, committed, and — some argue — conservative diasporas, is also playing out in Washington, where Jewish and Indian-American groups have been joining forces. In July, the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee jointly organized a Capitol Hill reception.
Jason Isaacson, who heads the American Jewish Committee's Washington office, described India and Israel as democracies surrounded by "hostile neighbors, well armed and numerous." He said it made sense to jointly work on issues where both countries stood to benefit.
One such issue was getting approval for Israel to sell India the Phalcon early warning system, a topic that Mr. Isaacson said his group and others raised with their substantial contacts in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill."
We followed it very closely," he said of the Phalcon issue, "and we were delighted by the outcome."
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