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    Middle East
     Mar 11, 2005
A post-Arafat shift
By P R Kumaraswamy

After weeks of anxiety and uncertainty, India-Israel relations appear back on track. A spate of political contacts clearly shows that despite its past criticisms over the pro-Israeli policies of the previous right-wing government, India's Congress Party has come to recognize the need to continue with India's newly found friendship with Israel. The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November appeared to have removed any lingering doubts in New Delhi over the place of Israel in India's overall Middle East policy. Having identified with him for so long, his death has enabled India, especially the Congress Party, to look at the broader Middle East without its traditional ties.

The Congress Party has been traditionally sympathetic toward the Palestinians and did not normalize relations with Israel until 1992. The roots of this policy can be traced to the early 1920s when Indian nationalists found a common cause with the Arab nationalists in Palestine and remained unsympathetic toward Zionist demands for a Jewish homeland. Its belated recognition in September 1950 was not followed by normalization of relations, and for more than four decades the absence of formal ties was the hallmark of India's policy toward Israel. During this phase, Indian policy ranged from indifference to outright hostility that reached its crescendo in 1975 when it voted for the infamous United Nations resolution that equated Zionism with racism.

The end of the Cold War and the recognition of new Middle Eastern realities after the Madrid Conference of 1991 compelled India to re-evaluate its sour relations. When the Arabs and Israeli leaders were seeking a negotiated political settlement, there was no reason for India to continue with its cold policy, and formal ties were established in January 1992. After some initial inhibitions, bilateral relations have improved considerably and a number of political, economic and military delegations have visited one another.

The relations improved significantly when the right-wing coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1998. The party's prolonged sympathy for Israel and its determination to move away from the pro-Arab stand of the Congress Party enabled both countries to forge closer ties. The desire of the BJP and its partners to seek closer ties with the US provided another impetus to the pro-Israeli posture. Its traditional pro-Western and anti-Soviet policy was also compounded by its subtle but recognizable nationalist posture that often bordered on unfriendliness toward Muslims, domestic and foreign.

Hence, even though it was the Congress Party that normalized relations with Israel, under the BJP the relations assumed high visibility and publicity. Surprisingly, however, its closer relations with Israel did not undermine India's larger interests in the Middle East. The reasons have to be found in the diminishing importance of the Palestinian factor in inter-Arab politics.

Moreover, by the time the BJP came to power some of the initial military contacts started bearing fruit. With Western sanctions following New Delhi's nuclear tests in 1998, India found Israel an important and reliable ally. Before long, Israel became India's second-largest military supplier after Russia, and India became the largest market for Israeli arms exports.

In 2004, the two sides concluded a US$1.1 billion deal for the supply of three Phalcon advanced airborne early-warning systems to India. Considering the US opposition to Israel supplying similar spy planes to China, the Indo-Israeli deal was an important development. Such convergence of interests among the three countries led to some Indian leaders openly suggesting a triangular alliance linking India, Israel and the US. India also sought to benefit from Israel's expertise in the upgrading of weapons and systems. Both sides are also cooperating in counter-terrorism operations and Israel is supplying India advanced surveillance and border management systems. They also benefit from intelligence sharing and periodic meetings of senior intelligence officials.

The relations reached a climax in September 2003 when India rolled out a red-carpet welcome to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The visit came against the background of growing criticism of Israel because of its handling of the Palestinian intifada and Sharon's own isolation from the international community. His visit was greeted by criticisms and condemnations from the Indian left and its supporters. However, contrary to initial skepticism, Sonia Gandhi, the then leader of the opposition, met the visiting Israeli leader.

Anti-Israeli stands
At the same time, it is essential to remember that by 2000 bilateral relations had ceased to be controversial in India and the visit of Jyoti Basu, the communist chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, in June that year revealed the bipartisan consensus vis-a-vis Israel. The outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada a few months later, however, signaled a new trend and anti-Israeli rhetoric returned. Since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, the communist movement has demanded the recalling of India's ambassador in Tel Aviv and the expulsion of the Israeli envoy from India. The muted response of the BJP-led government to Israel's strong-arm tactics against the Palestinians often came under condemnation in India. The anti-Israeli posture adopted by the Soviets and its allies, especially after the June war of 1967, provided a larger ideological platform for them to adopt a sympathetic posture toward the Palestinians and Arab radicalism.

The pro-American and pro-Israeli policy of the previous government remained an anathema to the Indian left, as well as a section of the Congress Party. Military relations, which grew significantly during the past few years, particularly come under stinging criticisms.

Indeed, some of the senior leaders in the present government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have in the past expressed reservations over closer ties with Israel. Current Education Minister Arjun Singh, for example, expressed reservations when then prime minister Narasimha Rao decided to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. Likewise, Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was highly critical of the Oslo Accords and in one of his weekly columns even depicted Israeli leader Shimon Peres as a "terrorist".

Above all, the government of Manmohan Singh depends upon the "outside" support of communist lawmakers for its survival. As discussed earlier, for long they have been vociferously opposed to diplomatic ties with Israel, especially the military-security dimension. Even when they were prepared to admit formal diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, they consider military ties as an infringement of Palestinian rights and collaboration in the anti-Palestinian actions of Israel.

Therefore, in the weeks following the parliamentary elections last May, there were concerns that by giving into the dictates of his communist allies and their supporters within the party, Manmohan might slow down the phase of Indo-Israeli relations. The Common Minimum Program of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) explicitly declared, "Traditional ties with West Asia will be given a fresh thrust. The UPA government reiterates India's decades-old commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own." Indeed, last September, India's junior foreign minister harshly criticized Israel after his meeting with the besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.

However, despite strong pressures from his coalition partners, Manmohan is signaling that India is not planning any drastic shifts in its Middle East policy. Indeed, developments in recent weeks indicate that Indo-Israeli relations are progressing both on the political as well as military fronts.

Mid-November shift
Ironically, the demise of Arafat not only brought about long-awaited reconciliation between the Palestinians and influential Arab countries such as Syria and Kuwait, but also facilitated the new Indian government to abandon its hesitation over continuing with the policies of its predecessor vis-a-vis Israel.

Arafat's death appears to have resolved the uncertainty over the sense of direction of Indian foreign policy and refocused the primacy of bilateralism in its policy toward Israel. Within days after Arafat's demise, a senior delegation from the Israeli Foreign Ministry was in New Delhi and conducted the first high-level consultations since Manmohan Singh became prime minister. This was followed by the meetings of the Joint Working Groups (JWG) on defense and counter-terrorism, both of which took place in Israel in early December.

The same month also witnessed the visit of Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was supposed to have accompanied Olmert, was held up by a coalition crisis over the budget.

If the political rapprochement was not sufficient, toward the end of December, Israel Military Industries announced that it had secured a $130 million lucrative defense contract from India. It is obvious that negotiations were initiated by the BJP-led government and perhaps it is likely that the December meeting of the JWG on defense would have discussed similar ventures.

One could argue that the annual meetings of the JWG and consultations were routine and should not be seen as substantial movements. However, given the uncertainty surrounding the bilateral relations since the resounding defeat of the pro-Israeli BJP government, such "routine" meetings do signal a clear message.

The gradual decline in the Israeli-Palestinian violence, high expectations after the Palestinian elections in January and the desire of the new Palestinian leadership to mend fences with the Arab world have enabled the UPA government in India to re-examine its initial reservations vis-a-vis Israel. Much of the 1990s was marked by tensions between Arafat and key Arab personalities over the Kuwait war and the Oslo process.

At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the negative vibes. Already, there are complaints that the new government has not "moved away" from the BJP policies and is continuing with its special relations with Israel. Despite its public pronouncements to the contrary, the Congress-led government is accused of not exhibiting sufficient support for the Palestinians. The absence of either the prime minister or Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi at Arafat's funeral in Cairo last November was interpreted as an Indian desire not to "antagonize" Israel.

Domestically, the government would not be able to ignore the coalition compulsions, especially if Israeli-Palestinian violence intensifies. At the same time, India, especially the Congress Party, could not ignore the turn of events since the death of Arafat. Not only is there a newfound rapprochement between the Palestinians and Israel, but also between the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. Palestinian leader Abu Mazen's visit to Syria, Lebanon and finally Kuwait marked an end to the tension that prevailed between Arafat and these countries.

It would be an exaggeration and even incorrect to argue that the road to Washington passes through Israel. At the same time, friendly ties with the Jewish state do help India in seeking a common cause with the US. When New Delhi and Washington have serious differences over issues, such as the Iranian nuclear program, the Iraqi conflict and Syrian support for militant Muslim groups, they converge on Israel.

At the regional level also, relations with Israel are no longer controversial. With the sole exception of Egypt, none of the Arab and Islamic countries has publicly expressed any concerns over Indo-Israeli ties. Even Iran, known for its anti-Israeli rhetoric, is keen to promote political and economic ties with India, rather than be concerned about Indo-Israeli ties. The ongoing debate in Pakistan over the need to reexamine Islamabad's traditional hostility towards Israel is also favorable to India.

At the same time, Pakistan is extremely weary of growing military ties between the two countries and even unsuccessfully pleaded with the US to scuttle the Indo-Israeli Phalcon deal. For the time being, China has not shown any anxiety in public, but given the Sino-Israeli tension with the US over military sales, China may not remain indifferent for long.

Abandoning its newly found relations with Israel is unlikely to bring any significant diplomatic gains for India. At the same time, Indo-Israeli ties would not remain immune to any intensification of Israeli-Palestinian violence, especially with the Congress Party in power.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments should be directed to content@pinr.com

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