The Sharon visit

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

The official visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon underlines the shift in India's West Asia policy, which is bound to erode further the country's standing in the Arab world.

ARIEL SHARON, despite being the Prime Minister of Israel, is not welcome in many world capitals. He has made official trips to Washington, London and Moscow in the last two years. Israel has traditionally had excellent relations with the United States. Russia and other West European countries have to deal with Sharon because they along with the United Nations and the U.S., are part of the "Quartet" engaged in finding a peaceful solution to the West Asia conflict. Even Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, have made their distaste of Sharon and his policies clear. It has, therefore, come as a surprise to many international observers that Sharon is going to be feted by the Indian government and that too on September 11 - a date that is designed to be synonymous with the global fight against terrorism.

The timing of the visit has come as a surprise to observers of the international political scene. In the last two weeks, the Israeli Prime Minister has virtually thrown the "road map" for peace into the dustbin by reverting to "targeted assassinations" of individuals connected with organisations like the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath, who was on an official visit to New Delhi in the last week of August, pointed out that it was Israel with its policy of using overwhelming force against civilians in the occupied territories that was responsible for the collapse of the latest ceasefire. "After 51 days of our total commitment to the ceasefire, Israel resorted to assassinations," said Sha'ath. In the last couple of weeks, there have been daily assassinations of Palestinian political activists who have chosen to work openly. While targeting one individual in a vehicle or a house, Israeli forces routinely kill innocent people who happen to be in the vicinity. "The Israelis call it collateral damage," said Sha'ath. Among those killed in recent weeks was an 11-year-old girl, who was injured in an Israeli missile attack in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Before Sharon reached India, his Defence Minster Sahul Mofaz said that he favoured expelling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from Palestine before the end of this year. For the last two years, Sharon has made Arafat a virtual prisoner. He is not allowed to move out of his half-demolished compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. With the resignation of the American-backed Palestinian Prime Minster, Mahmoud Abbas, who had become politically isolated among his people, Arafat remains the only credible representative. New Jewish settlements have been cropping up in the West Bank and Gaza. Sha'ath pointed out that the average population growth in Israel proper was around 1.6 per cent while the growth rate in the illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied territories was around 6.7 per cent.

Israel is also speeding up the construction of the so-called "security fence". The U.S. President George W. Bush recently described the fence as a "snaking wall". Sha'ath said that if security were the real concern of Israel then it would have built the wall inside its own territory and not on Palestinian land. "Second World War was caused by a particular ideology and greed for land. Israel is guilty of both," said Sha'ath. Israel, he pointed out, had built settlements in the occupied territories throughout the period of the Oslo peace process and is continuing to do so even now.

These facts evidently do not count for much in the corridors of power in New Delhi. Sha'ath recalled that India was among the first countries to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1988. All the major political parties warmly received the first PLO delegation to visit New Delhi. Only the Jana Sangh (the Bharatya Janata Party's predecessor) had staged a demonstration against the recognition accorded to the PLO. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has made no secret of its admiration for the Zionist state. Sharon's preference for targeted assassinations, ethnic cleansing and territorial aggrandisement has many admirers in the ranks of the party that leads a coalition at the Centre. A senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs, however, denied that India was interested in a "special relationship" with Israel. But, he admitted that India and Israel have common interests, exemplified by the close links between New Delhi and Washington and between Tel Aviv and Washington.

India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra was, however, more forthright about New Delhi's relationship with Tel Aviv. During a visit to Washington in May this year, Mishra, while addressing a prominent Jewish lobby group, talked about an U.S.-Israel-India "triad" to combat terrorism, based on "the shared democratic values" of the three countries. He said that relations between India and Israel were getting stronger "as they are democracies sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity. Stronger India-U.S. relations and India-Israel relations have a natural logic". Sha'ath, however, had an entirely different assessment on the pluralism and tolerance being practiced by the Israeli government. He said that the Israeli government's policies in the occupied territories violated the Geneva conventions. Palestinian land is being usurped, their agriculture destroyed and the bulk of the scarce water resources of the West Bank diverted to Jewish homesteads in Israel and the illegal settlements.

Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Home Minster L.K. Advani have articulated views similar to those of Mishra, during their visits to Israel. Jaswant Singh went to the extent of saying that it was "vote bank politics" which prevented the two countries from becoming natural allies. Advani, on the other hand was impressed at the way in which Israel tackled "terrorism". The electronic fence Israel had built to keep out the Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon particularly impressed him. Israel is still in illegal occupation of a small chunk of Lebanese territory.

New Delhi continues to insist that it supports all the U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. A senior Foreign Ministry official emphasised that New Delhi also wanted Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which belongs to Syria. But deeds speak louder than words. Many Arab diplomats feel that India's protestations about the continuity of its principled West Asia policy, sound hollow these days.

The international community has been closely observing the growing defence and strategic cooperation between India and Israel, especially since the BJP-led government assumed office. In the last four years, Israel has emerged as the second biggest supplier of arms to India. It is doing more than a billion dollars of business annually. Indian officials say that they are particularly obliged to Tel Aviv for rushing in urgently needed military equipment during the brief Kargil conflict. They claim that Israel is a reliable supplier though the prices it charges are exorbitant, even by the standards of the international arms bazaar. Israel has in the last couple of years provided the Indian armed forces with sophisticated radar and border monitoring systems. Israeli companies, to the chagrin of the Russians, have been making millions of dollars upgrading MiG-21s and other Soviet-era aircraft. They have recently bagged a contract to provide the avionics for the Indian Air Force MiG-27s.

Much of Israel's high-tech expertise is due to tie-ups with American companies and American financing. This necessitates the U.S. government's clearance when equipment like the Phalcon Early Airborne Warning Command and the Arrow Anti-Missile System are to be sold to third countries. Washington has finally given the green signal to the sale of the Phalcon to India. Earlier, the sale of the system was denied to China despite Israel having collected the advance payment. According to some defence analysts, one reason why Washington okayed the Phalcon sale to India was that it could, essentially, be used to collect intelligence on China. The U.S. was evidently concerned that China would use the Phalcon to gather intelligence on Taiwan and other U.S. military allies in East Asia. The Phalcon sale, in a way, underlines the growing strategic relationship among Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

According to reports appearing in reputed defence journals, Israeli specialists have been advising the Indian Army on counter-insurgency tactics in the Kashmir valley. The Israeli media have reported that India is planning to send 3,000 soldiers to Israel soon for training in counter-insurgency operations. Israel also hopes to gain expertise in sea-borne defence capabilities by holding joint exercises with the Indian Navy. The Jerusalem Post, in an article published earlier in the year, said that Israeli submarines reportedly conducted test launches capable of carrying nuclear warheads off the Indian Coast. It is no secret that there has been cooperation between India and Israel on nuclear and missiles technology for some time. According to the Israeli media, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, when he was in charge of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), used to make secret visits to Israel. Israel's nuclear arsenal is reputed to be much bigger than that of India, despite India being a formal nuclear power. The Pentagon is reported to have drafted plans for a military alliance modelled on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with India, Israel and Turkey as key players.

In the last couple of years, especially after September 11, 2001, New Delhi started subscribing openly to the definition of "terrorism" offered by Tel Aviv and Washington. The Indian foreign office spokesperson has gone on record equating Israel's war on terror with the one being waged by India. After the visit of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to New Delhi in January 2002, the Indian foreign office spokesperson said that: "India finds it increasingly beneficial to learn from Israel's experience in dealing with terrorism since Israel too has long suffered from cross-border terrorism." Apparently, in the eyes of the Indian government, there is very little to distinguish between the Palestinian struggle for independence and terrorism. New Delhi has chosen to remain silent in recent months as the Israeli government went on the rampage in the occupied territories, assassinating civilians. During his trip to Washington in May this year, Brajesh Mishra told the American Jewish Committee that no distinctions could be made between "freedom fighters and terrorists. He said that it was a "fallacy" to argue that terrorism could be eradicated by addressing the root causes.

Although they are reluctant to say so openly, many Arab diplomats feel that in recent years, Indian foreign policy has become self-centred and, in the process, India is losing its status in the international community. "India is reneging on its heritage. India will no longer be able to play a meaningful role in the West Asian peace process after receiving a war criminal," said a senior Arab diplomat referring to Sharon. The diplomat said that Sharon's visit to India would not in any way enhance his stature in the international community. "Israel is not accepted by NAM (Non-aligned Movement)," said the diplomat. The current NAM President, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, has been trenchant in his criticism of Sharon and Israel's policies. Many Arab diplomats are also of the opinion that the Indian government's hopes of forging closer relations with Washington by using Israel as a via media are misplaced. "American-Pakistani relations will always remain strong," averred an Arab diplomat. He went on to add that India's claims on Kashmir could suffer if the tilt towards Israel continues. "Till now Kashmir was considered a disputed territory, not an occupied territory by the Arab and Muslim world. Things could change."

The diplomat is also of the view that the Sharon visit will have an adverse impact on Indian diplomacy in the Arab world. "The visit will be construed as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. There is deep resentment against America and Israel in the Arab street. If after the Sharon visit, India sends troops to Iraq, there will be further suspicion about India's motives," said the diplomat. Another senior diplomat from West Asia said that it is not merely a question of India and Israel having good relations. "India has a role to strengthen peace, security and human rights. Israel should at least implement the road map for peace. By receiving Sharon, India is now encouraging Israel in its aggressive policies and human rights violations," said the diplomat. He said that during the presence of the Palestinian Foreign Minister in New Delhi, India should have sent a strong message to Israel that it wanted peace and an end to bloodshed in West Asia.

The Opposition parties have protested strongly against the Indian government's decision to invite Sharon. In a joint statement, leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (Secular), the Samajwadi Party and other parties described the invitation of the Vajpayee government to Sharon as "a most unfortunate decision". Sharon, the statement said, represents the most extreme sections of Israeli politics "which justifies the occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories".

The statement also said that to have such a person as an honoured guest is an insult to India's longstanding tradition of unequivocal support to the struggle of the Palestinian people for national liberation and an independent state. The signatories to the statement include former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, RJD president Laloo Prasad Yadav, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardan and Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh. The Congress party has not joined in the protest though well-meaning individuals in the party are appalled by the invitation. Eduardo Faleiro, Congress MP and former Minister of State for External Affairs, criticised the government's decision to invite Sharon. He said the idea of an "axis of U.S.-India-Israel" is against the national interest.

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