A visit and its aftermath

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to India, especially at a time when the Israelis have stepped up the violence against Palestinians, has caused a dent on India's prestige in the Arab world.

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should have reasons to be satisfied with the outcome of his short visit to India in the second week of September. Though security concerns ensured that he was confined for most of the time to his hotel in Delhi, he, nevertheless, was feted by the political elite as a man leading the fight against global terrorism.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the banquet speech in honour of his Israeli counterpart, did not even mention Palestine or the plight of its people. Vajpayee, instead, went on to say: "No cause can justify the use of violence" - words the Israeli side wanted to hear.

A senior diplomat based in Delhi said that all self-respecting states, especially those aspiring for a seat at the high table, raise important issues during formal visits of foreign dignitaries. "If a strong point regarding principles has to be made, governments have to state it, even in front of visiting dignitaries," said the diplomat.

A West Asian diplomat was even more forthright: "Sharon and Vajpayee shared the same platform at a time when Israel stands isolated internationally. This signifies Indian political support for Israel's policy of occupation and aggression against the Palestinian people." Another diplomat pointed out that Vajpayee's sharing of the same platform with Sharon was, "guilt by association. This may only be a perception but sometimes perceptions can be stronger than reality."

Protestations by senior Foreign Ministry officials to the contrary have not cut much ice with diplomats from Arab and Muslim countries. "India is trying to justify the unjustifiable. Receiving Sharon and accepting his definition of terrorism signifies a big political shift," said one Arab diplomat. Besides, Arab diplomats are perturbed by the timing of the visit. "It is like inviting the President of apartheid South Africa immediately after the Sharpeville massacre or the Soweto uprising," was how a diplomat from an African country described it.

There were protests all over India against the Sharon visit. The Israeli officials accompanying Sharon, however, dismissed them as inconsequential. Israeli Deputy Prime Minster Yosef Lapid, who was part of Sharon's high-powered delegation, said in Delhi that only "Muslim fundamentalist and extreme-Left parties" had bothered to demonstrate against the Sharon visit. He went on to add that even Centre-Left parties like the Congress (I), were supportive of Israel and its policies. The Sharon visit was preceded by a visit by Qatari Foreign Minister, ostensibly in his private capacity. United States President George W. Bush too had a telephonic conversation with Vajpayee, prior to the arrival of Sharon. Qatar is the current President of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

According to diplomatic sources, Bush's call and the visit of the Qatari Minister were to assure New Delhi that the diplomatic impact of the Sharon visit in the Arab world would be minimal. Qatar has close links with Washington and Tel Aviv and is among the small minority of Arab countries that are not averse to New Delhi forging an axis with Washington and Tel Aviv. While Sharon was in Delhi, a U.S. State Department spokesman welcomed Indo-Israeli friendship and said that the three countries had a lot of "common interests". During his talks with the Indian political leadership, Sharon raised the issue of trilateral cooperation among India, Israel and the U.S. The idea was formally proposed by Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Adviser, during his visit to Washington in May this year.

Before he emplaned for Delhi, Sharon had ordered the assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. The frail wheelchair-bound leader, who was meeting with his followers, escaped death narrowly. But Sharon had made his intentions clear. All those perceived as enemies of Israel were to be marked for death. The Palestinian retaliation did not take long in coming.

Almost every other day, Israeli forces target their leaders for assassination. The two suicide attacks on Israeli civilians took place on the second day of the Sharon visit to India. Sharon, whose visit was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, rushed back home, cancelling his scheduled visit to Mumbai. Among the first decisions the Israeli government took he returned home was that of expelling or physically liquidating Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

The failure of the Indian government to issue a strong statement condemning the Israeli government's decision on Arafat has only strengthened the suspicions of the international community about India-Israeli relations. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in the third week of September that killing Arafat "is definitely one of the options" open for his government. A senior serving diplomat noted caustically that even former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' reaction to the decision to "remove" Arafat was stronger than that of Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal. "The Sharon visit signalled a warm embrace. It was a meeting of hearts and minds. There was a deep ideological convergence between the two governments," observed an Arab diplomat. Another diplomat said that the only time he has seen Sharon smiling in recent memory was during his visit to India.

The government, however, continues to insist that there is no change in its position on the Palestinian issue. India's Permanent Representative in the United Nations, Vijay Nambiar, told an open meeting of the U.N. Security Council in the third week of September that removing Arafat from the scene "would be indefensible in international law. It represents an affront to the Palestinian people and the international community at large and must attract the severest condemnation worldwide." Nambiar, however, was careful to emphasise that India "condemns all acts of terrorist violence and reiterates its position that there is no justification whatsoever for attacks against unarmed civilians, women and children."

This definition of terrorism makes little sense to Palestinians in the occupied territories, who are targeted by Israeli Apache helicopter gunships and F-16 jets. "People under occupation have every right to struggle and fight," said an Arab diplomat based in Delhi.

Sharon, during his visit, praised India for not initiating anti-Israeli resolutions in the U.N. in recent years. He urged India to stop voting against Israel on U.N. resolutions on the Palestinian issue. Sharon wants India to come out of the closet and side with Israel in international fora. "Reciprocity is the basis of relations," Sharon is reported to have told a select Indian media group in Delhi.

Sharon also tried to impose his blinkered worldview on the Indian government. He branded Iran as the "epicentre of terrorism" and advised New Delhi to keep a distance from Teheran. Sharon, certainly is aware that India and Iran share a "special strategic relationship". Sharon also told New Delhi not to share Israeli defence technology with Teheran. The Likud Party leadership in Israel has been advising Washington to target Iran and Syria.

Teheran did not waste time on diplomatic niceties and was quick to issue a note through its Embassy in Delhi criticising the unwarranted observations of the Israeli Prime Minister. It asked Sharon to desist from "spreading his destructive thinking" in other regions of the world. The Iranian statement urged Sharon to stop killing Palestinians and put an end to the occupation of their land. "Crime and violence have so blinded Ariel Sharon and his racist government that they have forgotten that using hostile language against a third country violates diplomatic norms and international laws. That such language was used in the land of Gandhi is even more reprehensible," the statement said. An Arab diplomat described Sharon's visit to India as "an exercise in stridency".

Interestingly, Sharon had nothing critical to say about Pakistan - India's enemy and Washington's close ally. Israeli officials accompanying Sharon refused to criticise Pakistan for alleged "cross-border" terrorism and assorted vices. At the same time, the Israelis were busy hawking their weaponry to India. Islamabad has been warning that India's large-scale purchases of Israeli defence hardware would lead to an unnecessary arms race in the subcontinent. During the visit, India and Israel reportedly finalised the contract for the sale to India of two Israeli Phalcon airborne early warning radar systems worth around $1 billion. India also wants the Arrow and Patriot-3 missile systems. Israel is willing to sell the equipement across the board but needs a green signal from the U.S. as many of the components of these systems, like those of the Phalcon, are sourced from the U.S. or made under licence from American manufacturers. The Bush administration is also citing Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) restrictions. However, there are indications that the Bush administration could relent if the Indian government changes its current stance of sending Indian troops to Iraq. According to diplomatic sources, the Israelis too have urged India to send troops to Iraq.

Many defence experts question the rationale of the Phalcon deal. They are surprised that India feels so obliged to Israel. "It is the buyer who has the upper hand. You can buy your arms from anywhere. Israel will collapse without a market," said an analyst who has flown different kinds of planes and seen aerial warfare at close range.

He said that for a country of India's size, at least 15 Phalcons are necessary for air-borne radars to be effective. The Phalcons have to be continuously in the air as they are in countries like the U.S. The Phalcons, he said are effective in tracking low-flying planes that otherwise could elude ground-based radars. Keeping two Phalcons in the air will be a very costly affair. Millions of dollars will have to be spent annually just for the fuel bills and upkeep of the system.

The analyst also emphasises that for the Phalcons to be really effective against enemy aircraft, India will have to go for better interceptor planes. He feels that the MiG-21s and the MiG-23s of the Indian Air Force are dated fighting machines, which are no match for the F-16s and the Mirage-2000s, which come fitted with the best avionics and radar.

Arab diplomats based in Delhi are of the opinion that the Sharon visit has dented India's image in their part of the world. The Arab media have started drawing parallels between the BJP and Sharon's Likud Party. They feel that by inviting Sharon, India has mocked all Arabs. A senior diplomat said that Indian companies would now find it difficult to access Arab markets. Israel, he pointed out, was a limited market consisting of five million highly subsidised citizens.

"India will have to re-project itself globally. At one level, India chose to welcome Sharon when he was internationally ostracised, indicating that it was on the side of the conservative superpower. On the other hand, India chooses to portray itself as the leader of the developing world at Cancun. India's credibility has been affected," said the diplomat.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), in a statement, said that even the U.S. states that "for peace in the region to be ensured, an independent Palestinian state has to be set up. But the BJP led government is not prepared to say what its mentor states."

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