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Arms at the Heart of India-Israel Embrace

Leaders will meet today. Anti-terrorism, technology and trade draw the ex-foes closer.

September 09, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — Once bitter foes, India and Israel plan to strengthen their defense, intelligence and trade ties when Ariel Sharon attends a summit here today in the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister.

Although Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Sharon are expected to sign a joint declaration on drug trafficking, the environment and other issues, the most significant deals are likely to be negotiated behind the scenes. Flush from a booming economy, India has gone on an arms-buying spree and wants to purchase advanced systems from Israel.

At the top of the shopping list is the Phalcon airborne early-warning radar, which India has been trying to buy from Israel for years. Washington said last month that it did not object to the $1-billion sale, despite warnings from Pakistan that such a move would tip the military balance on the subcontinent.

India also wants to buy the Arrow missile-defense system, which defends against short- and medium-range missiles. But Washington -- which provided half the funding to develop the $2-billion system -- is said to be blocking any deal.

Pakistan and India have nuclear arsenals, but Pakistan is worried that the combination of advanced radar and antimissile systems in India would neutralize its smaller atomic deterrent and spark an all-out nuclear arms race.

India is estimated to have enough fissile material to make 45 to 95 nuclear weapons, while Pakistan could produce 30 to 55, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both countries are aggressively developing missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

Sharon is traveling with a delegation of about 30 businesspeople eager to open new markets in India, which has seen a sixfold increase in trade with Israel in the last decade. India is Israel's second-largest trading partner in nonmilitary goods and services, with more than $1.2 billion in commerce between the nations last year.

The increasingly close ties with Israel represent a significant shift in the foreign policy of India, which long gave unqualified backing to the Palestinian struggle for statehood and normalized relations with the Jewish state only in 1992. The leaders of mainly left-wing political parties, and India's more than 140 million Muslims, have called for street protests against Sharon's visit. By building closer defense and intelligence links with the U.S. and Israel, and easing long-standing tensions with China, New Delhi apparently hopes to win the upper hand in its conflict with Pakistan over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided between the countries. Muslim separatists have been fighting in the Indian-held portion of Kashmir for independence or merger with Pakistan.

New Delhi has proposed a three-way anti-terrorism alliance among India, Israel and the United States, which Vajpayee's national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, outlined in a May 8 speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington.

"The U.S., India and Israel have all been prime targets of terrorism," Mishra told the gathering. "They have to jointly face the same ugly face of modern-day terrorism."

Without mentioning Pakistan by name, Mishra alluded to the Pakistani government's long-standing distinction between freedom fighters in Kashmir and terrorists and tacitly associated India's actions in the disputed territory with Israel's attempt to defeat Palestinian militants.

"Distinctions sought to be made between freedom fighters and terrorists propagate a bizarre logic, which glorifies massacres of one set of innocent civilians while condemning killings of others," Mishra said. "Another fallacy ... is that terrorism can only be eradicated by addressing its 'root causes.' This is nonsense.... Democratic societies, which address the root causes of alienation and anger through pluralism and socioeconomic justice, are precisely the targets of terrorism."

For Israel, the remarks were a welcome justification of Sharon's tough stand against Palestinian militants and a dramatic change in rhetoric from a country that had pursued a stridently pro-Arab foreign policy as both a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and an ally of the former Soviet Union.

At the same time, Vajpayee's government is trying to balance its closer relationship with the United States by promoting what Indian officials call a "strategic triangle" among itself, China and Russia to safeguard common security and economic interests.

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