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New Facts, New Friendship

September 14, 2003|Henri J. Barkey and Rajan Menon | Henri J. Barkey, the Bernard and Bertha Cohen professor of international relations at Lehigh University, is a former member of the State Department's policy planning staff. Rajan Menon is the Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations at the university.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Ariel Sharon's visit to India last week, the first official one by an Israeli prime minister, represents another of the tectonic shifts in alliances since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

India recognized Israel in 1950, but it kept the Jewish state at arm's length for most of its history. That changed in 1992, when the two nations established diplomatic relations. It was one thing for India's Congress Party government to take that step. What the current government -- a coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and in power since 1998 -- has done goes much further and is far more consequential. It has chosen to form a strategic alignment with Israel.

The new partnership is at an early stage, but already the results are remarkable. Israel is now India's second-largest supplier of arms and military technology, after Russia. And India has surpassed China as the biggest buyer of Israeli armaments, accounting for 50% of Israel's total sales last year.

Beyond the sale of military hardware, the budding Indian-Israeli friendship promises to shift regional balances and involve the U.S. in a three-way alliance of sorts. Brajesh Mishra, India's national security advisor, proclaimed in a speech to the American Jewish Committee in May that, as democracies facing a common threat from Islamic terrorism, India, Israel and the United States had little choice but to cooperate. A similar refrain is voiced by Israeli leaders and neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration, who have been America's most vocal boosters of the entente between Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

India's embrace of Israel amounts to a sea change in its statecraft. Even as the country relied on the Soviet Union for most of its weapons during the Cold War, it worked doggedly within the Non-Aligned Movement to oppose alliances with either superpower. As part of that policy, it developed close ties with like-minded Arab nationalist regimes, particularly Gamal Abdel Nasser's in Egypt. Political sympathy for the Palestinian cause and the need to soften Arab support for Pakistan, India's nemesis, also precluded close ties with Israel.

Today, India has a nuclear Pakistan to its west and a nuclear China to its north; the latter, moreover, has a significant advantage in conventional military power. Russia's woes have made Indian leaders worry about Moscow's reliability as a weapons supplier, so they have sought to diversify India's purchases. Buying arms from Israel advances that goal and could prevent China from becoming the dominant export market for Israel's defense industries. Deepening strategic cooperation with Israel also would help India achieve its goal of more robust economic and military ties with the United States, because good relations with Israel will always elicit a positive response from Washington.

For its part, Israel expects several gains from its new partnership. One is that it could weaken the wall of isolation the Arab world has tried to erect around it, a gambit that recalls the strategy of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who advocated creating ties with non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East conflict: Turkey, Iran under the shah, the Lebanese Maronites and the Kurds. Indeed, the new Israeli-Indian relationship resembles the one that burgeoned in the 1990s between Israel and Turkey.

Multibillion-dollar exports of military hardware to India are also a lifeline to Israel's hard-pressed defense industries and a boost to its economy generally. And business is brisk. Israel and India have reached an agreement in principle on the $1.2-billion Phalcon airborne early-warning and command-and-control system. The other big-ticket item under discussion, the Arrow missile defense system, carries a $2.5-billion price tag and, like the Phalcon, is produced with U.S. technological assistance.

Israel has already sold India two Green Pine radars, which are central to the Arrow. The Arrow itself, however, may violate the Missile Technology Control Regime, established through U.S. efforts and subscribed to by Israel. Israel has also sold India anti-ship missiles, battlefield radars, night-vision equipment, unmanned aerial vehicles and Dvora-class naval attack craft. It has contracted to upgrade the avionics of India's fighter jets (the older variants of the Soviet-era MIGs and the British Jaguars) and the fire-control systems of its Soviet-made T-72 tank fleet.

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