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  April 10, 2002  

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Despite Arafat's pleas, India does little for Palestine

By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - While India has finally condemned the Israeli army's siege of Yasser Arafat's presidential complex as standing in the way of peace in Palestine, there is little else this country is prepared to do for a former close ally.

India's condemnation was slow and came only after Arafat made a personal plea to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee through his envoy and head of the foreign relations committee of the Palestinian Authority, Hani Al Hassan, last week. After his meeting with Vajpayee, Hassan could hardly hide his dissatisfaction with the Indian government's lukewarm response. "India has good relations with both Israel and the United States and can do much more to influence both," he said pointedly.

India's foreign ministry seemed content with letting it be known that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres had personally assured Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh that no harm would come to Arafat during the nearly two-week siege by Israeli forces to "isolate" the Palestinian leader.

Although there has been for decades enormous popular support for the Palestinian cause in India, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has - after it came to power in 1998 leading a multiparty coalition headed by Vajpayee - assiduously cultivated Israel as a friend and a military partner. During a visit to Israel in June 2000, Jaswant Singh declared that India's diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv had in the past been affected by the "domestic politics of the Muslim vote bank", drawing criticism from leaders of the opposition Congress party here, against which the statement seemed to be aimed.

But Singh also showed the BJP's bias by saying that India and Israel were bound by a common civilizational outlook, almost deliberately opening the way for suggestions that the two countries were on the same side in any "clash of civilizations" that the world might see against the Muslim world.

Commented former foreign minister and Congress party leader Eduardo Faleiro: "India supported the Palestinian cause not because of any Muslim vote bank but because Israel's formation was part of an imperialist plan to resettle Jews by removing Palestinians from their homeland." Faleiro said it was regrettable that Singh should hint that Indians and Israelis were on the side of the Judeo-Christian world against Islam in any theoretical civilizational conflict, thereby "communalizing foreign policy".

But India's wrangle with Pakistan over the disputed Muslim-majority state of Kashmir and the September 11 terror attacks on the United States appear to have only hardened the BJP's position in favor of Israel. By January, the two countries had established a joint-working group on terrorism and a joint communique issued after the first meeting in Jerusalem said the discussions covered "a number of issues including the threat of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations as well as the sources of terrorism".

In a step that was important from New Delhi's point of view, Israel announced that it fully supported India "in its war against terrorism and the steps it is taking to fight terrorism". The reference was clearly to India's dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir.

Shortly before a visit by Peres to India in January, the Israeli daily Haaertz revealed that Israel was poised to replace Russia as the leading arms supplier to India especially in the context of its on-again-off-again border confrontation with Pakistan.

Following the lifting of US sanctions against nuclear-weaponized India as a reward for its quick expression of support to the Bush administration post-September 11, the Israelis stepped up arms supplies to include the controversial "Phalcon" airborne early warning systems expected to come through later this year.

Arab countries, as well as the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), egged on by Pakistan, have on several occasions voiced apprehension about growing Israeli-Indian military ties. But the reality is that although India and the Arab countries are neighbors across the Arabian Sea and India has the world's largest Muslim population outside Indonesia, Arab investments in this country are negligible. New Delhi also finds Arab support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue irksome.

On the other hand, the Israeli ambassador to India, David Aphek, has carefully repeated that "cross-border terrorism" in Kashmir is no different from terrorism anywhere. "There is no positive terrorism or negative terrorism," Aphek said, meaning that Israel disapproved of Pakistan's alleged support for what it insists are freedom fighters in Kashmir.

Post-September 11, India lost little time in offering "all cooperation and facilities for any US military operation" against its war against terrorism and did not hide its disappointment when Washington instead sought Pakistan's support in its war against the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Forum, then openly declared what its close affiliate, the BJP, hesitated to say: "Hindus have been waging a relentless war against Islamic terrorism for the past 1,000 years but it is only now that the world has come to realize the threat Islamic terrorism poses to the forces of peace."

(Inter Press Service)

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