India and Israel Ready to Consummate Secret Affair

At first glance, India and Israel seem like improbable allies. India has long championed Palestinian rights, and the country’s large Muslim population makes cooperation with Israel politically dangerous. But 11 years after New Delhi established full relations with Tel Aviv, the two countries share increasingly strong ties based on a common desire to defeat violence rooted in Islamic fundamentalist extremism. Facing terrorism in the state of Kashmir and elsewhere, India has been buying a lot of weapons, recently becoming the largest single destination for Israeli defense exports. And both countries, who share intelligence often, are interested in developing an anti-ballistic missile system to protect against a perceived nuclear threat from Pakistan. Still, none of these topics is likely to be discussed publicly when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits India this week. The two sides want to keep their public agenda focused on tourism and trade; but as for their deepening military alliance, confidentiality is still a strategic priority. –YaleGlobal

India and Israel Ready to Consummate Secret Affair

Edward Luce
Thursday, September 4, 2003

On Sunday Ariel Sharon will become the first Israeli prime minister to visit India in what both sides see as a "coming-out party" for one of the world's most secretive relationships.

Mr Sharon's trip, 11 years after New Delhi established full relations with Tel Aviv, also coincides with the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks - something that Atal Behari Vajpayee, India's prime minister, and Mr Sharon intend to exploit.

India has long championed Palestinian rights, at the United Nations and in other forums, but in the face of growing Islamist terrorism in the divided state of Kashmir and elsewhere, New Delhi has quietly strengthened relations with Israel.

India recently overtook Turkey as the largest single destination for Israeli defence exports - and Israel has become India's biggest arms supplier.

In addition, the two often exchange intelligence information on Islamist terrorist groups. "There's a perception that both countries face similar threats and share similar experiences," said an Israeli official.

"We have many things to learn from one another." Little or nothing of those military ties will be mentioned in their joint declaration next week.

Although Israel has supplied India with surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated sensing equipment (to monitor cross-border terrorist infiltration) and unmanned aerial vehicles, the Palestinian cause remains popular in India.

New Delhi has gone to great lengths to keep the flourishing relationship out of public view.

At 140m, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, as well as 3.5m workers in the Gulf countries, from which it imported $17bn (&euro15.7bn, ?10.8bn) worth of oil last year.

"India has increasingly close ties with Israel but it cannot afford to alienate the Muslim world," said P.R. Kumaraswamy, an Indian scholar of Israel. "There are very large sensitivities in broadcasting this relationship."

But these are obstacles to publicising the relationship, not to its continued growth.

One issue Mr Sharon is expected to raise Mr Vajpayee is Israel's desire to develop an anti-ballistic missile system with India.

New Delhi is gravely worried about the growing nuclear arsenal of neighbouring Pakistan, which it still accuses of sponsoring militant activity in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Israel also has concerns about Pakistan's nuclear programme, trumpeted in the past as the "Islamic bomb".

"India might pretend this is simply about buying arms from Israel and nothing more," said Bharat Karnad, an Indian security expert, who helped draft India's "no first use" nuclear doc-trine.

"But the level of intelligence co-operation on Pakistan is more extensive than with the United States.

"This is a strategic relationship."

Mr Vajpayee in particular feels grateful to Israel for its willingness to step up arms sales after India's nuclear tests in May 1998. The US, UK and others immediately curbed technology exports to India and Pakistan following the tests, although yesterday India agreed a $1.7bn deal to buy Britain's Hawk jet trainer aircraft.

Israel, which also developed its own clandestine nuclear arsenal, felt no such constraints towards India.

There have even been hints that the two co-operate in the nuclear field. "Israel was there for India in 1998 when most of the rest of the world was lecturing India," said Mr Kumaraswamy. "This is a very big plus point."

But many Israeli military products are based on technology licensed in the US. The US, which has a veto on such sales, has relaxed export constraints to India since September 11, which is why Israel can sell the sophisticated $1.2bn Phalcon early warning system to India. It was approved by the State Department in Washington earlier this year.

Mr Sharon and Mr Vajpayee will openly discuss issues such as tourism, cultural exchanges and official trade, roughly two-thirds of which is in diamonds. The two are also likely to announce plans for a free trade agreement. But there will be few hints of the true significance of this bilateral relationship.

"We intend to keep this pedantic," said one Indian official.

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003.

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