Israel, India forge strategic partnership

After a decade-long estrangement, Israel now plans to sell advanced surveillance aircraft to India in a $1 billion deal that has Washington concerned.

Estranged until 10 years ago, India and Israel are steadily moving into an intimate strategic partnership.

When Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan visited India in 1979, his hosts demanded that he come secretly, out of deference to India's close ties to the Arab world. Now, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is planning to visit soon as a follow-up to the feting early this month of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

"We find ourselves in the same camp that fights terrorism, and we have to develop our relationship according to that," says Deputy Director-General for Asian Affairs Zvi Gabay. "Both countries have suffered greatly from terrorism, and we have to get rid of this problem."

Israel and India have forged strong ties in areas ranging from agriculture to space technology. But it is in the military realm that relations are really taking off: Israel is now India's No. 2 weapons supplier, after Russia.

In one respect, the friendship may be developing too fast for Washington.

Israel plans to sell Phalcon advanced surveillance aircraft to India for an estimated $1 billion. The American fear is that, if transferred now, the Phalcon could impact the delicate balance of power in the tense standoff between India and Pakistan. Among other things, the planes would give India improved ability to coordinate airstrikes.

"We actually support the transfer," but the US is consulting with Israel "about the transfer, including the system's capability and timing," The Associated Press quoted State Department spokesman Philip Reeker as saying.

US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton is holding talks in Israel now in which concerns about the timing of the sale are likely to arise, while Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes was expected to push US counterparts for the planes.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a member of the Knesset from Mr. Sharon's Likud party, says "there may be a question of timing with the US, but there is no question of principle" on the sale, which he said is extremely important for Israeli military industries.

Two years ago, Israel was forced by the US to cancel a deal to sell Phalcons to China, out of concern it would have altered the balance of power between China and Taiwan. Israel faces costly Chinese demands for compensation.

Mr. Gabay stressed that Israel would like the conflict between India and Pakistan to be solved diplomatically, and that "Israel is not participating with India in any war."

But according to Jane's Defense weekly, Israel was an ammunition supplier during India's border war with Pakistan in 1999 and last March, the weekly said that members of Israeli security forces were regularly visiting the Kashmir border. The defense ministry did not respond to queries on the matter.

"Russia delivers the hardware - tanks, aircraft, and ships, and Israel provides the weapons systems - the radar, the electronic control systems, and other high-tech add-ons," Jane's quoted an Indian military official as saying.

"India finds it immensely beneficial to learn from Israel's experience in dealing with terrorism, since Israel, too, has long suffered from cross-border terrorism," an Indian foreign ministry spokeswoman said during Peres's visit.

The rhetoric was very different during the 1960s when India, as leader of the nonaligned movement, had close ties with Egyptian President Jamal Abdul-Nasser, who viewed Israel as the arm of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

For years, Israel was allowed to maintain only a consulate in Bombay, and even Dayan's visit did not persuade India to upgrade ties.

But the launch of the Middle East peace process in 1991, combined with India's desire for better ties with Washington after the collapse of the Soviet Union, contributed to the establishment of full diplomatic relations in January 1992.

There were also Indian domestic factors contributing to closer ties, including the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which, unlike the once-dominant Congress Party, did not offend the sensitivities of Muslim voters.

Mr. Gabay says civilian trade has increased five-fold to $1 billion during the decade and that it includes high-tech agricultural equipment, diamonds, and foodstuffs. "We are very good friends and are open for any relations the Indians would like to see develop," he says.

But Tamar Gozansky, a left-wing Israeli member of the Knesset, is not as enthusiastic about the way the relationship is evolving. She says arms sales should not dominate Israel's ties with other countries, and she takes issue with the way statements about fighting terrorism have become a common language.

"Terrorist is a word that is used by the government fighting oppressed people to describe the oppressed," she says.

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