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Peres Visit Highlights Growing Ties Between Israel and New Ally India

The official communique was rather dull: Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was on his way to India for a three-day-visit.

Just another diplomatic trip? Hardly.

This week’s visit is part of a fast-developing romance between the tiny Middle Eastern nation and India, the world’s largest democracy with more than a billion people.

The strategic alliance could be compared only to Israel’s strong ties with Turkey — in that both India and Turkey lie outside the orbit of Israel’s traditional Western friends.

The Peres visit came following “a joint security strategic dialogue” held last September, when Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, head of Israel’s National Security Council, visited India for talks with his Indian counterpart, Barjash Msheira.

The official purpose of Peres’ visit to India was “political and economic” talks, but it also was a show of support as India is engaged in a standoff with Pakistan over Kashmir.

Both Israel and India have a common nemesis in Islamic terrorism. Like Israel has in its dealings with the Palestinian Authority, India recently invoked President Bush’s strong stand against sponsors of terrorism when it threatened Pakistan over a terror attack at the Indian Parliament allegedly backed by Pakistani militant groups.

India’s prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, sounded as if he had adopted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s comments on Arafat when he said that he had “had enough of symbolic gestures from Pakistan” and expected “a halt to terrorist acts against India.”

However, there is much more to the relations between Israel and India than the need to fight Islamic terrorism.

The strategic alliance between the two countries — both considered members of the exclusive international nuclear club — is based predominantly on strong military ties. India learned from Israel ways to defend its long border with Pakistan, as well as how to develop highly sophisticated weapons.

India also seeks to learn from Israel’s prowess in counterterrorism, as well as its expertise in night warfare and air surveillance. Indian newspaper reports say Israel has become India’s second-largest defense partner after Russia.

Peres was expected to discuss the sale of three Phalcon early warning aircraft. The deal was stalled until recently because of American sanctions, as the United States funded the development of the radar devices on the planes.

However, those sanctions were lifted recently and the deal seems imminent. Whereas the United States prevented Israel’s sale of the Phalcon system to China — because of the U.S. commitment to the security of Taiwan — it is understood that America will not block the sale of Israeli-made Phalcons to India.

According to Israeli and Indian media reports, a contract already has been signed between Israel Aircraft Industries and the Indian Defense Ministry for $2 billion, according to which Israel will provide India with advanced military equipment and other advanced products.

According to those reports, Israel will sell India ground-to-ground Barak missiles for $280 million, pilotless planes for $300 million and a radar system for $250 million.

Israeli experts also will modernize other parts of the Indian army. They reportedly will renovate hundreds of Mig 21 and Mig 29 planes, Sukhoi helicopters and Russian-made T-72 tanks.

The two countries may also cooperate in developing an integrated anti-ballistic missile system, designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles.

India and Israel also are looking into the possibility of integrating the Greenpine Radar, which is part of Israel’s Arrow missile, with India’s Rajendra Army Radar system.

Relations between the two countries have improved, particularly in the past two years. In March 2000, Jaswant Singh became the first Indian foreign minister to visit Israel. Following the visit, the two countries set up a joint anti-terror commission.

Israel hopes its special relations with India will give it greater leverage in Southeast Asia, as it fears that Pakistan could transfer nuclear weapons technology to the Arab world.

Pakistan blamed Israel in the past for allegedly cooperating in Indian nuclear tests, charges Israel denied. However, when India detonated nuclear weapons three years ago, Israel refrained from joining the worldwide condemnation of the tests.

At a recent strategic dialogue between Israeli and Indian experts at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Jasiit Singh, director of the Indian Institute for Defense Studies, said, “It was a mistake not to develop better relations with Israel much sooner.”

Economic ties also have strengthened considerably. When full diplomatic relations were established 10 years ago, the volume of mutual trade did not exceed $200 million. Today it stands at $1 billion, not including military transactions.

It took a long time for India to warm up to Israel. In the pre-1948 period, Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian National Congress opposed the creation of a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine.

India did not subscribe to the partition plan for Palestine, and it voted against the admission of Israel into the United Nations in May 1949.

India recognized Israel in 1950, but — always keen to maintain good relations with the Arab world — waited until 1992 to establish full diplomatic relations.

New Delhi has stressed time and again that its growing relationship with Israel will not jeopardize its traditional friendship with the Arab world. Although India continues to be an ardent backer of the Palestinian cause, its coolness toward Israel had much to do with its dependence on Arab oil, analysts said.

As a major importer of hydrocarbons from the Middle East, and with millions of Indians working in the oil-rich nations there, India had practical considerations in mind.

Much to Israel’s dismay, India still votes against Israel in international forums. In all but one of the 19 anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations in the past year, India voted against Israel.

The only exception was a vote on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, India abstained.

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