January 11, 2002
0430 IST


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India walks the tightrope with Israel

Ramananda Sengupta

"We cannot accept that Israel, with its plots and in this unusual manner, becomes involved in regional affairs." So said Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Sadak Harazi on Tuesday, expressing concern over the "real purpose" of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's three-day visit to India earlier this week.

"If it is true that Tehran is worried about my visit, it is a good thing," retorted Peres in an interview to Israeli Army Radio from India. "Until now Tehran has been involved in terror and has pretended to be innocent...." To rub it in, he pointed out that India and Israel "see the world eye to eye and agree that terror must disappear".

The Pakistani press was equally suspicious of Peres's visit, with some reports suggesting that the 'Zionists and the Hindus' might be planning strikes against Pakistan's nuclear installations. This was, of course, rejected by official Islamabad, which claimed that its nuclear facilities were well protected.

Pakistan, however, voiced apprehensions about the proposed sale of the Israeli Phalcon early warning system to India, saying any such collaboration involving advanced weapon systems should cause concern across the Islamic world.

New Delhi was quick to distance itself from Peres's remarks about Iran, since it sees Tehran as one of its principal allies in countering Pakistan's anti-India campaign in the Islamic world. It also perceives Iran as an important link to the Central Asian republics.

Peres's denouncement of Iraq as another sponsor of terrorism too must have made the Indian side uncomfortable, given Delhi's attempts to maintain friendly ties with Baghdad and its continued opposition to the United Nations sanctions against that country.

These incidents only highlight the tightrope walk New Delhi has had to perform to avoid being perceived domestically and internationally as leaning too close to the Zionist State, particularly since it has always allied itself strongly with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian cause.

But the fact remains that ever since the establishment of formal diplomatic contact between Israel and India in 1992 (there has been a consulate in Mumbai since 1951, but ties were upgraded 41 years later), the two countries have built upon the relationship, though New Delhi has tried to underplay it to avoid offending the Arabs, who supply most of India's oil.

But after the Vajpayee government came to power, there was an overt surge in cooperation in almost every sphere, despite some objections raised by the Arab embassies in New Delhi. Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu are among the Indian politicians who have visited Israel over the last couple of years. The most obvious Arab protest against this growing relationship came when Saudi Arabia abruptly cancelled Singh's proposed visit late last year on flimsy grounds.

The fact that Israel refused to condemn India's nuclear tests in 1998 endeared Jerusalem further to New Delhi. And then, during the Kargil conflict, Israel became one of the primary suppliers of ammunition for the Bofors gun. Today, Israel is India's second largest arms supplier after Russia.

Coming as it did at a time when India-Pakistan ties have reached a new low, Peres's visit reasserted the Jewish State's eagerness to step up business with India. As the Israelis see it, besides the commercial gains from arms sales and other tie-ups, the payoff for increasing defence and other cooperation involves India using its "good offices" to bring Arafat to the negotiating table and sharing information on terrorist outfits and sympathisers. In fact, the first Israel-India joint working group on terrorism was meeting in Jerusalem even as Peres was visiting India.

The team led by R M Abhyankar, additional secretary in the external affairs ministry, is expected to finalise a regular bilateral arrangement. But, in another example of the tightrope act India has to perform, Abhyankar also carried a letter from Prime Minister A B Vajpayee for Arafat, reiterating India's support for the Palestinian cause.

Late last year, soon after September 11, a team of Israeli counter-terrorism experts toured Jammu & Kashmir at Advani's invitation. Led by Eli Katzir of the counter-terrorism combat unit of the Israeli prime minister''s office, the team comprising top police and military intelligence officers was supposed to prepare a report on ways to prevent terrorists from sneaking into India from Pakistan.

Then in October, Israel lifted the self-imposed ban on export licensing approvals to India and sent a high-level delegation to firm up arms deals, the most expensive being the Phalcon early warning system. That deal, worth nearly $1 billion, is likely to come through soon with the US withdrawing its objections to the sale. Earlier, Israel had been forced by the US to renege on the sale of the system to China.

Israeli unmanned aircraft, or drones, are already deployed on the border with Pakistan, with more advanced versions likely to be ordered soon. There are also reports of Israel upgrading and servicing some of India's Russian-built equipment, mainly the aging MiG-21 aircraft, which are now being fitted with advanced radar to bring them at par with the American systems used by the Pakistani Air Force.

"Israel is likely to be one of our major defence suppliers, particularly if a war breaks out with Pakistan," said a defence ministry source.

On other fronts, Peres not only reiterated Israel's support for India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, he went a step ahead and sought India's inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He argued that since the alliance had changed its focus from old enemies that no longer exist to the newest threat, terrorism, and India had joined the war on terror, it deserved to be on board.

He shrugged off the fact that Pakistan too had jumped on to the anti-terror bandwagon after the September 11 attacks. "The world is no longer divided into east and west. The new division is between countries that harbour terrorists and countries which fight them," he said.

But though he made the right noises on Jammu & Kashmir, expressed faith in India's ability to resolve the issue without outside help, tried to expedite the sale of military equipment, and talked of cooperation in the war on terror, the fact remains that the two countries have no commonality in terms of terror enemies. Hamas and Hezbollah are quite different from the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in terms of both leadership and political outlook, though, like all terrorist groups, they have been known to exchange notes.

This was obvious at the interaction with the media that followed Peres's meeting with Advani. While Peres spoke of Iran and Iraq as the next targets, Advani talked about Pakistan. And when forced to discuss Pakistan on a TV interview, Peres admitted that the ground reality was different here, given the nuclear status of both nations.

"You have to fight terrorism in a determined manner and in different ways than to fight a war, because they [terrorists] use different ways... While fighting terrorism, you should have a political horizon and conduct a dialogue," he said. "You should also raise one hand for peace in a prominent manner... Even the Simla solution calls for a direct bilateral dialogue."

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