July 20, 2000


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India tries to pacify Arabs on ties with Israel

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

Foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh met a delegation of Arab envoys Thursday to stress that New Delhi's friendship with Persian Gulf countries will not be affected by India's new-found fondness for Israel.

But the meeting only shows how India's overdrive in seeking to take relations with Israel to a strategic high boomeranged with angry Arab and Muslim nations seeking clarifications.

Last month, Union Home Minister L K Advani visited Israel, where he discussed ways to control cross-border terrorism. A little later, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited the country, seeking to broaden parameters of Indo-Israeli ties. Later, it was West Bengal Chief Minister and Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Jyoti Basu's turn.

With Basu's visit, the political spectrum of India has given its stamp of approval to better relations between the two nations. The Congress had first initiated diplomatic links with Tel Aviv in the early 1990s, during the P V Narasimha Rao regime. The Bharatiya Janata Party's manifesto also explicitly states that better relations with Israel are an objective.

However, what has caught the attention of Arab envoys and diplomatic observers was Advani's remark that India and Israel were seeking a "strategic" partnership. Later, Jaswant Singh declared that it was Muslim vote-bank politics that prevented New Delhi from seeking closer ties with Tel Aviv, a statement that drew howls of protest from India. Singh has not spoken to the media since his return from Israel.

What's behind the sudden fondness for Indo-Israeli ties? It is a bit of ideology (the BJP's) and a bit of natural progression in relations that took off only in 1992.

"Singh's remark, besides being provocative, is quite untrue," a former foreign secretary remarked. "India's military and economic links with Arab countries are historic. And if we did not have too many links with Israel, there are certain factors responsible, not local political compulsions."

Congress leader and former diplomat Mani Shanker Aiyer, in a newspaper article criticising Singh's remarks, pointed out that in 1948, India had opposed the partition of Palestine (into Jewish and Muslim territories) because it too was a victim of a similar division. It was not, Aiyer argued, because New Delhi was seeking the friendship of Muslim countries for domestic reasons.

A former foreign secretary said India's belief in non-alignment and Israel's closeness to United States/western countries, it was natural that Indo-Israeli ties never took off in the early years of the two countries independence.

However, J N Dixit, who was foreign secretary from 1992-1994, when India established diplomatic links with Israel, believes that there is some truth in Singh's statement. "When I emphasised the need to establish ties with Israel in 1992, there was concern about the reaction of Muslims in the country," he said.

However, once relations were established, there was no patent Muslim reaction. "A reason for this was that many Muslim and Arab countries had established links with Israel by then and there was no reason to oppose it," he said.

In fact, once-hostile countries like Jordan and Syria were reaching out to Israel while a beginning had been made at establishing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

So if the Arabs themselves are now on good terms with Israel, why the brouhaha about the latest round of talks? The Arab League summoned the Indian ambassador in Cairo for a clarification, while Arab analysts warned of a nexus between the two nations.

Dixit pointed out that once diplomatic ties are established, they take on a life of their own. "It is natural for ties to progress from the first tentative links eight years ago. Thus, visits by Advani and Singh were overdue. Tragically, certain shrill remarks by the two leaders have created this unnecessary furore," he said.

The Arabs are worried about two factors: Israel and India are seeking to combat "Islamic terrorism" (the term India uses freely now, was first coined by Israel!) and India's growing closeness to the United States, Israel's greatest ally.

Some Arab analysts have even hinted at an India-Israel-US nexus against Islamic nations, since all three are concerned about terrorism on their territories. What lends credence to this is that the BJP is seen as a 'right wing nationalist party', opposed to Muslims in India, while Israel has historically been at war with its Arab neighbours.

"Let's face it," a source in the government said, "a reason for the Centre's interest in Israel is its ideological commitment. After all, the BJP manifesto says that improving ties with Israel are a priority and the visits are part of that agenda."

Another diplomatic observer said that Singh's remark is more a case of the BJP pandering to its constituency.

Incidentally, the first top-level visit to India by an Israeli dignitary was during the Janata Party rule (1977-1979) when Moshe Dayan made a secret trip to New Delhi. A B Vajpayee was then the foreign minister.

However, most agree that talk of a strategic partnership is premature. "Links with Israel are being built on national interests of both countries and will progress on that premise," said Dixit.

India has long been interested in purchasing airborne warning systems from Israel, while at a non-strategic level, Gujarat and Rajasthan are keen to learn from the Israeli experience on how to green deserts.

An India-Israel-US alliance is a far cry. "US links with Israel are a different ballgame and to assume that India can be a part of that today is ridiculous," the former foreign secretary declared.

Moreover, despite ideology and interests, India's links with the Arab world are deep and too important. India's single largest import of petroleum products comes from the Arab world.

"No government can afford to forget the central fact that our oil requirements are met by Arab countries. Thus we have to make sure that we do not jeopardise our national interests for the sake of ideology. That should be the basis of our foreign policy," he said.

However, Dixit was keen that the oil factor should not be overplayed. "We buy oil because the Arabs sell it. And we buy it at the market price. There is no charity here, it's simple business. We should not be beholden to Arab countries because of that."

Dixit has advocated a tough stand vis-a-vis Muslim countries, especially on sensitive issues like Kashmir, where they tend to toe the Pakistani line. Immediately after the visits to Israel, the Organisation of Islamic Countries passed an anti-India resolution on Kashmir, much to New Delhi's ire.

What the future holds for Indo-Israeli ties remains to be seen, but now New Delhi is busy pacifying Arab envoys that friendship with Tel Aviv is not at the expense of the Arab states.

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