India, Israel: Dismal science and a cuddle

Posted in India | 07-Feb-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
NEW DELHI - Away from the buzz over India's position on Iran's nuclear program and the strike by airport workers against modernization that will cost them jobs, this week New Delhi has also quietly engaged with Israel.

The situation in the Middle East after the victory of radical group Hamas in the Palestinian elections and the nuclear imbroglio over Iran figured prominently in discussions between Israel's visiting National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, a retired major-general, and his Indian counterpart M K Narayanan.

While the Indo-Israel joint working group on defense cooperation met in November, the strategic dialogue between the two countries' national security advisers after a four-year gap has been revived by New Delhi after a fair amount of lobbying. Eiland, who is on a three-day visit, was scheduled to arrive earlier but his visit was postponed after the ill health of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

He also met with Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and discussed bilateral issues. "The issues covered during the meetings were bilateral, security perspectives [regional and global] and developments in South Asia, West Asia and North Africa, and the [Persian] Gulf," an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

Eiland expressed Israel's fears about Hamas winning the Palestinian polls. Israel has decided to freeze funds to the Palestinian Authority, fearing the money could end up supporting terrorist elements. US President George W Bush has said his country would not work with the new Palestinian government until it rejected violence. Washington has also urged other countries to freeze aid to Palestine.

According to reports, there are also efforts by New Delhi to impress upon Israel not to export any military hardware to Islamabad, especially in the wake of US opening its arms supplies to Pakistan. The efforts by New Delhi have been in the face of criticisms by the government's leftist coalition partners that want India to espouse the Palestinian cause and see engagement with Israel as negating this stand.

Issues that were discussed with Eiland included Islamic fundamentalism, US-India relations, the depth of Israel's involvement with Islamabad and counter-terrorism, insurgency, and infiltration exercises along the Indo-Pakistani and India-Bangladesh borders. Though India has traditionally supported Arab nations and voted against Israel in the United Nations during the height of Non-Aligned Movement, the needs have changed in the current world order with the US the dominant force.

Stung by what India considers a hardening stance within the political spectrum in Washington on transfer of nuclear technology to India, New Delhi has been reaching out to Israel for support. Though there has been a big jump in defense relations between India and Israel, it is in the political forums in the US and elsewhere that New Delhi is looking for backing from Jerusalem.

Several US voices have expressed misgivings over India's efforts so far in separating civilian and military nuclear facilities, setting stiff conditions before progress can be made on the expansive nuclear deal signed between India and US in July. India sees Pakistan's designs in the matter.

A firm belief has taken seed in the Indian establishment that Pakistan, at the instance of President General Pervez Musharraf, is reaching out to the powerful American Jewish lobby to stymie Indian efforts to build bridges with the US, especially in granting access to civilian nuclear sources of energy. There has been pressure on New Delhi, which has been accused of twiddling its thumbs while Pakistan seizes the moment with Israel.

The famous September 1 handshake between Pakistani Foreign Minister Kursheed Kasuri with his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul has made New Delhi doubly suspicious. A rescue team from Israel was allowed by Islamabad to fly in after the October 8 earthquake that devastated Pakistani Kashmir.

Apart from keeping on the right side of Washington, Pakistan's decision to engage Israel has been in response to the that country's pullout from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, though Musharraf faces stiff opposition from radical Islamic groups at home.

A comment after the Pakistan-Israel engagement reads: "While Pakistan's move to befriend Israel is likely to further consolidate its relations with the United States, it will create complications in its ties with the Arab world, produce domestic difficulties and generate pressures within India to outmaneuver Pakistan by deepening New Delhi's already close relations with Israel" (see India left scrambling, September 8, 2005).

Indeed, as a response to Islamabad's overtures, there have been several efforts by New Delhi to build strategic depth in relations with Israel. Eiland's visit is a continuation of this process. New Delhi has stood by Israel and has supported it against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's comment that the predominantly Jewish nation should be "wiped off the world map". Iran refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and supports Palestinian militant groups such as Islamic Jihad.

New Delhi is concerned about the health of Sharon, who has undergone brain surgery to stop bleeding and whose medical condition continues to be very serious. Apart from orchestrating the Middle East peace process, Sharon is considered to be a friend of India, having visited the country in September 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee headed the government. Sharon was the first Israeli prime minister to visit India since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1992. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has sent a letter to the Israeli government expressing concern at the health of his counterpart.

India is also likely to host Israeli Defense Secretary Yaakov Toran at a joint working group on military cooperation. Mukherjee is expected to visit Israel soon, most probably after the high-profile visits to India next month of Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.

Israel's point man for the Gaza disengagement process paid a quiet visit to India and conveyed his country's commitment to the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. A retired major-general, Amos Gilad is seen as extremely close to Sharon. To ensure that India is kept abreast of developments, he took time out to visit New Delhi despite being involved in negotiations. Indian officials have pointed out that it was the first time a top Israeli official had come to New Delhi to explain the withdrawal process even though the Manmohan Singh government has played down ties with Israel because of leftist opposition.

Rooted in these interactions is also an understanding that Israel needs to build bridges with the Muslim world including Pakistan, given its anathema of Iran. Israel is also flexible on the idea that India needs to handle Tehran delicately given its energy needs from the second-largest oil-producing country.

Of course trade continues to grow, much as the Sino-Indian experience wherein the two countries have set aside old differences such as border issues to pursue business. India is already Israel's second-largest trading partner in Asia, after Japan.

In the past few months, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar have visited Israel, and former external affairs minister Natwar Singh was scheduled to visit before March but he has been removed after incriminating revelations in the Volcker report on Iraq's oil-for-food scam under the Saddam Hussein regime. Nath was the only international keynote speaker invited to speak at Israel's annual economic conference on November 10, chaired by Sharon.

Pawar is scheduled to visit Israel again to attend a major agritech exhibition. There have been discussions to sign a preferential trade agreement between the two countries. More than US$1.3 billion foreign direct investment from Israel has been cleared by India.

Starting from about $200 million in the early 1990s, bilateral trade is pegged at $3 billion in 2005, a 14-fold increase. The State Bank of India and software major Tata Consultancy Services are in the process of opening facilities in Tel Aviv.

As many as 40 Indian companies have a presence on Israel's diamond bourses that has accounted for 60% of trade between the two countries. Both the governments have agreed to set up a joint fund to provide seed capital to Indian and Israeli companies. The corpus, initially $1 million each, will be increased to $25 million. This fund is aimed at promoting technological collaboration and research and development through joint ventures.

However, New Delhi understands that economics alone cannot be the bedrock for geostrategic game plans where nations try and outwit each other to garner political mileage as well as resources. Otherwise China would not trade with Japan and oppose all moves to incorporate the country into the global arena, including membership of the UN Security Council. Similarly, while India and Pakistan have a peace process they continue to clash in their interests with US.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.