Following in the footsteps of the 20,000 Israeli backpackers who flock to India every year, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will fly to New Delhi and Bombay next week for the first prime-ministerial visit there since the two countries first established full ties 11 years ago.
Israel and India share a common enemy in the war on terrorism: Both face ongoing attacks from Islamic extremists, and both seek American support for their anti-terror campaigns.
Behind Sharon’s photo opportunities with top Indian officials, diplomats and negotiators will spend the three-day visit hammering out the details of several new defense deals. One, for an Israeli-made airborne radar system, would give India a strategic edge over its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan, and the regional superpower, China.
The deal for the three plane-mounted Phalcon radars, manufactured by Israel’s state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries, is valued at $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion. The sale would bolster already hefty exports to India of Israeli ordnance and technology.
“India is one of Israel’s most important markets for defense exports,” said Moti Amihai, head of the Asia desk at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. “We have identical interests in several areas and hold contact on various levels of security and counterterrorism.”
The United States is watching the deal with interest. Sources in Washington said the Bush administration, which holds sway over Israel’s major defense deals, approved the Phalcon sale in May after ascertaining that India and Pakistan had backed down from the nuclear standoff they reached last summer.
That contrasts with the U.S. response to Israel’s last major deal in Asia in 2000, when the United States nixed Israel’s planned Phalcon sale to China, citing fears the radar would be used against Taiwan, a U.S. ally.
“India and Israel are valued friends,” said the source in Washington. “We did not feel the Phalcon would complicate the regional balance.”
America’s interests in Asia having shifted since the Cold War, when Pakistan was supported as a bulwark against Communist China. Now, Islamabad suffers from the weight of Islamist extremism while Pakistan’s foes in India, the world’s largest democracy, have embraced unambiguously the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
After the United States approved Israel’s Phalcon deal with India in May, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf assailed the United States, but by summer he was calling for a national debate on recognizing the Jewish state.
Analysts attributed Musharraf’s reversed course to Islamabad’s jitters at the prospect of being bested by India in a future air war.
“I guess counterbalancing Israel’s relations with India is the main reason for that,” observed Yiftah Shapir, an analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
For Israel, however, the Pakistani shift was too little, too late.
“Any Pakistani overtures would certainly not influence our ties with India. They are too important to be affected by such rhetoric,” Amihai said.
India recognized Israel in 1950 but full diplomatic relations between the two countries were not established until 1992. Non-military trade volume — from diamonds to textiles– has ballooned to $1.6 billion this year from $200 million in 1992.
India’s few Jews enjoy freedom from anti-Semitism, and there is a small but vibrant immigrant community of Indian Jews in Israel.
During Sharon’s visit next week, the two countries are expected to sign several cooperative agreements in the areas of economics, health and the war on drugs.
The two democracies are building a reciprocal dynamic that defies their demographic imbalance; Israel’s population of 6.7 million is minuscule compared with India’s almost 1 billion citizens.
The highest priority between the two countries are defense ties, mostly with Israel providing the technology and India providing the rupees. India already has bought 3,400 of Israel’s new Tavor assault rifles, and the Asian nation uses Israeli-made surveillance drones and other frontier monitoring systems.
“India has our border terrorism problems writ big,” said a senior Israeli security source.
Indian officials hope the Phalcon sale could presage acquisition from Israel of the $2.5 billion Arrow defense system, the world’s only operational antiballistic missile system. That system uses Israeli and U.S. technology.
But the Bush administration has declined to approve that sale. Washington sources said that the Arrow, unlike the Phalcon, would give India such a decisive strategic advantage over its nuclear adversary, Pakisatan, that Islamabad could use it as a reason for upgrading its nuclear arsenal.