Sharon to Pay Landmark Visit to India
Sharon to Pay Landmark Visit to India
Sep. 07, 2003
NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due in New Delhi on Monday, along with three of his ministers and more than two dozen influential business and defense industry executives.
The visit marks the high point of a budding friendship between countries that share a British colonial past and tensions with Islamic extremists in the present, as well as a nuclear capability and strong high-tech industries.
Not all Indians will welcome Sharon, however, and India's neighbor and chief nuclear adversary, Pakistan, will be watching warily.
The visit could tilt the balance of power on the subcontinent if India receives significant military assistance from technologically advanced Israel.
The three-day trip is the first by an Israeli leader since a reluctant India _ long a supporter of the Palestinian struggle for a homeland _ established relations with Israel in 1992.
``It's a message that the countries of the Middle East cannot dictate who will be our friends and who will be our adversaries,'' said P.R. Kumaraswamy, an Israeli specialist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Despite planned protests by leftist groups and declarations by politicians that Sharon is an oppressor who has no place in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, India is eager to seal some major defense deals and show off its intensified security to Pakistan.
New Delhi hopes to complete an agreement to buy three of Israel's advanced PHALCON radar systems. The United States, Israel's most powerful ally, recently lifted its objection to the $1 billion deal, despite warnings from Pakistan that it could raise tensions in South Asia and destabilize the region.
Hamid Gul, a retired army general and former head of Pakistan's spy agency, said Sharon's visit and the U.S.-approved deals were disconcerting.
``After using Pakistan as a front-line state in the war against terrorism, America has started encouraging Israel to sign new defense deals with India,'' he said. ``America's policy will kill the conventional balance in the region.''
India also wants Washington to allow Israel to sell its Arrow anti-missile system, which was developed with U.S. support and could ward off nuclear threats from Pakistan. Washington is worried the sale could set off an arms race on the volatile subcontinent.
The neighbors have fought three wars since independence from Britain and nearly started a fourth last year when India blamed Pakistan for a deadly suicide attack on its Parliament complex.
``I'm sure Pakistan is quite wary of the way the Indo-Israeli relationship is expanding,'' said C. Raja Mohan, a defense analyst in New Delhi.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in June urged his countrymen to consider recognizing Israel, despite strong opposition from religious hard-liners.
While most Indians favor relations with Israel, many are strongly opposed to Sharon.
``Israel has occupied Palestine and enslaved its entire people. It's a shame that the Indian government should invite such an oppressor as a state guest,'' said Pushpinder Grewal, secretary of the New Delhi chapter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
A planned visit to the Taj Mahal was scrapped after New Delhi rejected Tel Aviv's demand that Sharon view it from a bulletproof car. Such vehicles are banned from the protected 17th century marble tomb.
The budding alliance is an about-face for the countries, which share a similar history. Both were part of the British empire, India gaining independence in 1947 and Israel a year later. But during the Cold War years India, as a leader of the nonaligned movement, was cool to the Jewish state.
Home to the world's second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia, Indian leaders were an early supporter of establishing a Palestinian state.
India has warm relations with most Arab nations. Some 3.5 million Indians work in the Gulf states and India imports one-fourth of its oil from the region.
But with the end of the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the common cause of curbing Islamic extremists, India believes it can have relations with Israel while still supporting the Palestinians.
``Israeli military hardware, technological help, only Israel can help us here, not the Syrians, not the Egyptians or the Saudis,'' said Kumaraswamy.
Sharon's delegation on his first visit to South Asia will include three Cabinet ministers and 35 executives from security, technology and agricultural firms.
The countries enjoy about $1.2 billion in annual bilateral trade, much of it in diamond import and export and agricultural technology.
India and Israel also have a Joint Working Group on counterterrorism.
Efraim Inbar, head of Bar Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, expects Sharon to raise concerns that India's ally, Iran, is trying to develop nuclear arms.
Israel itself is believed to have a significant nuclear stockpile, but _ unlike India _ it has never formally confirmed this.