August 20, 2003
Nervous about the possible reaction to a first-ever visit by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon from September 9-11, India has invited Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Sha’ath to New Delhi on August 29.
The government’s transparent balancing act between its new fast friend, Israel, and its traditional ally in the Arab world, Palestine, betrays a continuing tension that remains at the heart of New Delhi’s Middle East policy.
But 11 years after the Congress government under P V Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel — a policy the BJP-led government has pursued vigorously for the last five years — there remains an inner core of disbelief about Tel Aviv that harks back to a Cold War order.
According to this school of thought, India’s large Muslim population — it’s the second largest in the world — hardly approves of such a strong foreign policy shift, especially since Israel continues to ‘‘fence off’’ the 1967 Green Line that informally divides Israel from the Palestinian territories.
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Of course, it has considerably helped that a US-brokered ‘‘road map’’ to peace that ended the second Palestinian intifada on June 4 seems to be still holding, despite the odd sniper deaths and calls of betrayal by both sides.
On its part, New Delhi points out that since most of the Arab world has accepted the ‘‘road map’’ — it promises a Palestinian state at the end — it would be foolish not to keep in touch with all sides in the Middle East conflict.
On his part, External Affairs minister Yashwant Sinha visited Syria and Turkey recently, as much to get a sense of the world-after-Iraq as well as a grip on the situation in Middle East. But MEA sources insist, India’s Israel-Palestine policy is not a ‘‘zero-sum game.’’
Ariel Sharon’s visit from September 9-11, the first ever by any Israeli prime minister to India, is considered by the MEA to be a ‘‘public expression of a friendship’’ that Tel Aviv has now offered for many years. Highly placed sources pointed out that India’s Defence relationship with Israel is so ‘‘profound’’ that it would smack of ingratitude if New Delhi did not publicly accept that fact.
The most recent example has been the Israeli decision to sell India the Phalcon early warning defence system, even though the US held the sale from going through for at least a couple of years, saying it would significantly alter the defence balance in the region.
Israel is also believed to have provided the avionics for the IAF’s star performer, the Russian-built SU 30 MKI.
New Delhi also seems somewhat nervous about publicly acknowledging any assistance or exchange of views that Israel may offer it on counter-terrorism, although a joint working group on the same was set up when Home minister L K Advani visited Israel in the summer of 2000.
Certainly, the government seems wary about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s persistent statements that the Kashmir issue be referred to the UN —a position that closely approximates that of Pakistan, rather than India.
Sources here also pointed out that New Delhi’s ‘‘reaching out to Israel’’ over the last few years also meant that it had a ‘‘much better view’’ about the Middle East process, instead of being ‘‘handicapped’’ by a ‘‘one-sided relationship.’’
‘‘To have a greater say, a role, a greate relevance to the Middle East, it was necessary for India to have a relationship with Israel,’’ the sources said.
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