Q&A: India and Israel's friendship based on common concerns

From his home base in New Delhi, Scott Baldauf covers India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other south Asian countries. Earlier in his Monitor career, he served as European news editor and Asian news editor. Mr. Baldauf discussed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent visit to India and some of the geopolical considerations in the long-standing friendship between these two countries with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

How would you characterize the relationship between India and Israel? Is it expedient? Long-term? Strategic? Just commercial?

India and Israel have had a decade-long friendship based on their common concerns about pan-Islamic extremist groups. The relationship has been quiet, because India has always maintained its support for a Palestinian nation-state, and has remained close to most of the predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East, which consider Israel to be an enemy. Yet, over the years, India has begun to share intelligence with Israel on certain terrorist organizations. India is also buying some Israeli military hardware, including high-tech sensors that it is now reportedly using to detect cross-border incursions from Pakistan into Indian-administered Kashmir.

India and Israel have also developed other areas, of course, such as tourism, and Israel has shared some of its knowledge of drip-irrigation for arid-land agriculture.

How likely is India to purchase an anti-missile system from Israel? How might Pakistan react?

India would love to buy an anti-missile system from Israel, but because most Israeli technology relies on key US components, such a sale would require the approval of the US government. And the US would give a lot of thought to such a sale, because it could give the comparative advantage to India over Pakistan. Both of these countries possess tested nuclear weapons stockpiles, and giving the advantage to one country over the other would arguably increase the chances of war.

Pakistan's reaction would be swift and heated, for this very reason. India is a much larger country, and Pakistan considers its nuclear arsenal to be the main factor that keeps India from overrunning Pakistan.

From the point of view of Muslims in India, what is the take on an Indian-Israeli alliance?

Many Muslim Indians feel strong connections with Palestinians, whom they see as an oppressed Muslim minority in a hostile non-Muslim land. On the grounds of human rights, these Muslims argue, India should have no business with a country that treats many of its residents as second-class citizens. Others argue that India, as a secular state, should avoid close relations with a country that gives rights to some citizens and excludes others merely based on their religious identity.

If Pakistan is bad because it is a country founded on religious identity, these Indians argue, then shouldn't India also oppose relations with Israel, which is based on a similar religious ideal?

What is the US position on Israel selling military technology to India?

The US is cautious on most arms sales of sensitive technology, but it will be watching closely to see if any Israeli arms sales would give an enormous advantage to India over its nuclear rival, Pakistan.

Since there is so little movement on resolving the many issues that divide India and Pakistan, and that have sent them to war three times (four, if you count Kargil in 1999), the US's goal would be to maintain a South Asian stalemate, where neither side would feel comfortable launching an attack on the other, for fear that their enemy could launch nuclear weapons as retribution.

Do the three main democracies in Southwest Asia - India, Turkey, and Israel - face similar challenges from Muslim militancy? Do they share a common struggle that could bring them closer together?

There are some similar challenges that these three countries face, although India's militancy problem is perhaps more varied and complex than either Turkey's or Israel's. Turkey faces a struggle within Islam: Should Muslims modernize and enter the economic mainstream of Europe, or should they fight to preserve the traditions dating back to the Prophet Mohammad?

Israel's problem is a land dispute: Should the Israelis trade land (the West Bank and Gaza strip) for peace with a mostly Muslim Palestinian state.

India, on the other hand, faces a whole slew of domestic issues that only tangentially have to do with Islamic extremism. In Kashmir, India is dealing with an 13-year-old separatist movement that resulted after rigged elections kept a pro-Indian state government in power. Islamic extremist groups took the lead in the resulting insurgency, but only after other non-sectarian separatist parties were jailed or eliminated in fighting.

Communal tensions in Gujarat, on the other hand, are more firmly rooted in the mutual suspicions of the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. Riots in the spring of 2002 were sparked when Gujarati Muslims attacked and burned a train full of Hindu right-wing political activists. State government officials, who themselves belong to the pro-Hindu BJP party, claimed they were unable to contain the resulting riots by Hindu gangs that killed more than 1000 Muslims. Now, there are reports that some Gujarati Muslims are joining extremist groups to continue the cycle of revenge.

So while India, Turkey, and Israel share a common struggle in some sense, it's hard to see what tactics India could borrow from either of these countries. Instead, India may want to take a look at its neighbor Pakistan, which has been dealing with Islamic extremist groups and sectarian violence for years.

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