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Israel: Sharon To Visit India To Boost Military Ties

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to visit India next week, the first trip to New Delhi by an Israeli premier since the two countries established full diplomatic relations 11 years ago. Sharon, whose country has become a major supplier of arms to India, is expected to discuss counterterrorism, defense cooperation, and defense deals.

Prague, 5 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to travel to India on 7 September to discuss a range of issues with the leadership in New Delhi, including the fight against terrorism and defense cooperation.

India is attaching considerable significance to Sharon's trip -- the first visit by an Israeli head of government since the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1992.

S. Chandrasekharan is director of the South Asia Analysis Group in Noida, India. He said: "[Sharon's visit] does mark a new dimension in the bilateral relationship. For too long, India and Israel have been on either side of the divide -- you know, the Cold War, India being allied with the Soviet Union, while Israel was with the U.S. Second of all, India was reluctant in those days [to establish full relations with Israel] because of its dependence on oil supplies from Arab countries. Third, India has a large Muslim population, as you know. It comes second after Indonesia. So these were the factors which forbid India to get closer to Israel."

But Chandrasekharan says times have changed. The Cold War is over, and Arab countries are divided over the war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism, and other issues. At the same time, he adds, New Delhi has managed to increase its oil production and has acquired greater confidence in dealing with its Muslim population.

Sharon is due to be in India until 11 September, a symbolic anniversary for both countries, which see themselves as victims of terrorism.

Harvey Feldman is a former U.S. diplomat who is currently a senior fellow for Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation research institute in Washington. He says common security interests have motivated the development of military ties between Israel and India.

"Israel has become over the past few years a major supplier of arms to India," he said. "I think it now ranks number two following Russia. And both have a common interest in opposing terrorism. India has suffered more from terrorism in sheer numbers than any other country in the world. Israel, in proportion to its population, has suffered more from terrorism than any country in the world."

In the past decade, India and Israel have developed thriving commercial ties, climbing to more than $1 billion in 2002, with Israeli arms exports seeing the most rapid growth. Israel also exports electronic equipment, optical and medical equipment, as well as raw diamonds. Polished diamonds, chemicals, textiles, tea, and domestic apparel are India's main exports to Israel.

Some analysts estimate that half of Indo-Israeli trade may involve arms transfers.

New Delhi has also turned to Jerusalem for expertise in helping it repulse border incursions from Pakistan, as well as suicide attacks. India has reportedly hired Israel to train four battalions of nearly 3,000 Indian soldiers for specialized anti-insurgency operations.

Alon Ben David is a defense analyst for Israel's Channel 10 television and a reporter for the London-based "Jane's Defence Weekly." He believes military and defense cooperation will be at the center of discussions during Sharon's visit to India.

"The military cooperation is becoming more and more close and intimate between the two countries," he said. "And I would guess that we could even see a signature on the deal of selling the Israeli Phalcon early warning [radar] system to India, which is expected to be the largest export deal ever done in Israel."

Despite Pakistan's objections, Washington confirmed last month that it has given Jerusalem the green light to sell the Phalcon system to India -- a deal worth nearly $1 billion. The Phalcon incorporates American technology and is thus subject to U.S. veto on its transfer to a third party.

Ben David notes New Delhi is also interested in the Arrow antiballistic missile system, which is also developed jointly by Israel and the U.S. He does not expect the U.S. administration to object to the deal.

While India's defense budget is expected to reach $100 billion over the next decade, Chandrasekharan stresses there is no deliberate move by India to replace Russia as its main arms provider. He says imports of Israeli weaponry and equipment are likely to increase as a consequence of India's difficulty in negotiating defense deals with Russia.

"The point is [that] wherever you get good sophisticated weapons without problems and with an assured supply of spares over the years, they will go ahead," Chandrasekharan said. "Russia has been the main supplier [to India] so long, but there have been difficulties in getting parts. Sometimes, the prices are rather too high. It's a kind of optimum use of the funds to get [arms and equipment] from Russia [and] from Israel."

According to Ben David, India is nonetheless beginning to appear as one of Israel's main allies: "Traditionally, we've seen Israel in each decade accepting a new ally in what we call the second circle surrounding Israel -- [by that] I mean not a neighboring country. It was Iran in the 70s, South Africa in the 80s, and Turkey in the 90s. I would say that for this decade, India is definitely becoming a prominent ally of Israel. So yes, the visit of Prime Minister Sharon will certainly be a milestone in the relationship between the two countries."

Meanwhile, Western intelligence agencies say growing ties between India and Israel are spurring efforts by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to recognize the Jewish state, despite opposition from domestic political parties.

Musharraf said last month that the time has come for Islamabad to consider establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.