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June 26, 2002

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India and Israel united in defense

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - With India-Israel bilateral engagement deepening, New Delhi's status as a friend of the Arabs is being steadily eroded. Although India continues to maintain a "studied neutrality" between Israel and the Palestinians, it is doing a balancing act. And even a balancing act is a significant shift, given India's unambiguous support to the Palestinian cause for many decades.

The ongoing crisis in the Middle East has evoked a rather muted response from India. This is in contrast to the past, when New Delhi would have sharply criticized only Israel's aggression toward the Palestinians.

India did urge Israel to lift its first military siege of Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, at his headquarters in Ramallah. However, significantly, in a break from the past, it also urged the Palestinians to put a stop to "acts of terrorism". When Hani al-Hassan, Arafat's special envoy, traveled to New Delhi to urge the Indian government to help break the impasse, India's response did not go beyond expressing "grave concern" at the deteriorating situation in West Asia.

India's shift from support for the Palestinians to a tightrope walk between them and the Israelis is not so much the result of a negation of the Palestinian cause - it continues to describe the problem as one of occupation of Palestinian land - as it is an outcome of its growing cooperation with Israel. This cooperation has developed over a mere decade.

Although India recognized Israel in 1950, full diplomatic relations were established only in 1992. In the intervening four decades, "India's policy vis-a-vis Israel ranged from unfriendly to outright hostility," writes P R Kumaraswamy, an expert on India-Israel relations, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. This, despite the fact that anti-Semitism did not exist in India.

While Afro-Asian solidarity on anti-colonialism influenced India's foreign policy in the early post-independence years, it was its preoccupation with winning allies on the Kashmir issue and neutralizing Pakistan's influence in the Muslim world that shaped New Delhi's policy toward Israel. Besides, its dependence on Persian Gulf oil and the remittances of a large expatriate population in the Arab countries pushed India to adopt a pro-Arab policy.

In 1975, India recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people". In 1980, it granted full diplomatic status to the PLO mission in Delhi. The Israeli consulate in Bombay (now Mumbai) was downgraded further two years later.

The first stirrings of change were visible in the mid-1980s, but it was only after the end of the Cold War and India's drift away from non-alignment that India granted Israel full diplomatic status in 1992. While India-Israel ties improved rapidly thereafter, it was in 1998-99 that the process really gathered momentum.

Today, India and Israel are working together in counter-terrorism strategy, they share intelligence, they supply defense equipment and undertake joint defense-related research.

With regard to cooperation on fighting terrorism, India believes that it shares with Israel the problem of having to combat Islamic terrorists, fighters with a jihadi mindset and suicide bombers. "New Delhi would like to avail of Israeli expertise in tackling infiltration, improving security at vital installations and hunting down terrorists. The two sides are sharing intelligence too," a senior official in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Asia Times Online.

Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor reported last August that Israel was "heavily involved" in helping India combat Islamic militants in Kashmir and "several teams [are] now in Kashmir training Indian counter-insurgency forces". A year earlier, the two sides set up a joint commission to combat terrorism and have been interacting regularly. There is growing support in India for adoption of Israeli methods of tackling terrorism, including pro-active measures and pre-emptive strikes to dismantle terrorist infrastructure across the border in Pakistan.

If the Pakistani incursion at Kargil in 1999 gave momentum to Indian efforts to access Israeli expertise in counter-terrorism, that effort has "witnessed a manifold increase since September 11", says an Indian intelligence official. "India and Israel are not just on the same side in the war against terrorism, they want the problem to be tackled in all its manifestations. Unlike the US, which is hesitating on going after al-Qaeda in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), the Israelis will have no problem providing quiet input for any operation there." Indian intelligence officials see Israel as a more reliable partner than the US in counter-terrorism operations.

The other area in which cooperation is increasing is with regard to defense. A senior defense research scientist told Asia Times Online that this involved cooperation in research and development (R&D) and purchase of military hardware. India is investing billions of dollars in joint R&D. In the 10 years since full diplomatic relations were established between the two countries, the growth in defense ties has been phenomenal. Today, Israel is India's No 2 arms supplier, after Russia.

In a New Delhi-datelined report in Al-Ahram, a newspaper published from Cairo, Michael Jansen writes that "Israel's arms industries launched an aggressive campaign in India, concluding deals for sales, joint projects and technology transfer worth billions of dollars. In addition to the $1 billion Phalcon deal, Israel Aircraft Industries last year concluded contracts for naval surface-to-air missiles ($280 million), unmanned aerial vehicles or drones ($300 million) and the Green Pine radar system ($250 million). Projects under discussion include upgrading India's aircraft avionics and T-72 Russian-manufactured battle tanks and developing a truck-borne howitzer. India could also bid for Israel's Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system."

Defense cooperation with Israel received a fillip when the US, UK and others imposed sanctions on India after its nuclear tests in 1999. Unlike other countries, Israel did not condemn India's nuclear tests. India's search for new partners for purchase of defense equipment gained urgency after the sanctions. India found Israel suitable not only because the Israelis were willing to sell equipment to India but also because their military technology was better than that of the Russians. Besides, India has seen "Israel as an indirect route for getting technology from the US", points out the defense research scientist.

The increasing cooperation is causing some unease among Arabs. But officials in the MEA dismiss negative fallout on India's ties with the Arabs. "India's purchase of weapons from Israel does not augment Israel's military power against the Arabs," a former Indian diplomat says. "The Arabs have had no problem with China's defense ties with Israel." India sees China's Middle East strategy of close ties with the Arabs and the Israelis as an approach from which it can learn.

The Arabs don't have so much of a problem with India's purchase of defense equipment from Israel as they do with a possible shift in India's political stance and outlook. "They will watch how India votes in the United Nations," says the former diplomat. Hitherto, India has consistently voted with the Arabs on the Palestinian question. "India is unlikely to change that," he says.

A Palestinian student studying in Bangalore says that since 1998 - when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power - the statements issued by Indian leaders have begun to sound similar to those made by Israeli leaders. "By adopting Israeli methods, India is in a sense endorsing Israel's position," he says.

The future of the India-Israel relationship will depend to a considerable extent on the US. The ties could suffer if, under US pressure, Israel scraps or puts on hold the supply of defense equipment. And unless India balances its interests carefully and treads the tightrope without hurting Arab sentiments, it stands in danger of alienating its old friends for the sake of a new uncertain romance.

(2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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