Close regional ties and contrasting loyalties

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Having suffered partition at her independence, India inevitably did not support the United Nations partition plan for Palestine in 1947. India extended recognition to the State of Israel in September 1950 and established diplomatic relations in 1992. India gave diplomatic recognition to Palestine soon after it was announced.

Since the establishment of respective embassies in New Delhi and Tel Aviv in 1992, relations between India and Israel have progressed rapidly. Trade between the two countries increased from about $200 million in 1992 to nearly $1 billion in 1999. Diamonds account for nearly 60 percent of India’s exports. Indians have always admired the way Israel has made the desert bloom. It was, therefore, natural for areas such as drip irrigation, greenhouse technology, floriculture and horticulture to receive particular attention in the development of bilateral relations. Officially, a number of agreements have been signed providing a legal framework for trade and economic exchanges. An Air Services Agreement signed in 1994 enabled the two countries to establish direct air links. There have been several ministerial visits in either direction and the president of Israel paid a state visit to India in 1996.

India and Israel have had useful exchanges in the field of science and technology. There is, however, absolutely no substance to the reports, mischievously carried in Arabic media from time to time, that India has helped Israel in the nuclear field. India is strongly committed to not exporting any nuclear-related technology to any country. In any case, Israel is known to have developed its "bomb in the basement" well before India’s nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.

The two countries do have ongoing and expanding cooperation in the defense field. The chief of the Israel’s air force visited India in January 1998 and the chief of India’s air force reciprocated in Israel two months later. In September 2003, Amos Yaron, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, held talks in India on co-production and procurement of defense equipment and systems. The talks centered on imports of aircraft-mounted aircraft, co-production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) commonly known as drones, and installation of electronic warfare systems. Substantial defense deals were negotiated during Prime Minister Sharon’s visit to India in September 2003.

The Sharon visit was highly controversial in India. Editorials in leading newspapers criticized it and political parties as well as private organizations held rallies in protest. The opposition was not so much to the visit of the Israeli prime minister per se, but to the visit of Mr. Sharon, whose name is forever associated with the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla and who, in more recent times, has incarcerated Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his quarters in Ramallah. Mr. Sharon was, of course, given all the honors due a visiting head of government, but the negotiations over the joint statement issued at the end of his visit were quite tough. The Indian side wanted to include a reference to United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, but the Israeli side did not agree. The Israelis tried hard to get the Indians to share their concern over Iran’s nuclear program, but the Indian side made it very clear that relations with Iran were of great importance to India.

Strong support for the Palestinian cause has been a consistent strand in India’s foreign policy, irrespective of which political party is in power in Delhi. There seems to be a perception in some circles that the present government in India, headed by BJP leader Mr. Vajpayee is not as strongly committed to the Palestinian struggle as previous Congress governments. The Vajpayee government utilizes every available opportunity to remove such an impression. It is significant that the Indian government lost no time in denouncing and condemning the statement of the deputy Israeli prime minister, made within hours of Mr. Sharon’s departure from India, suggesting plans for killing Yasser Arafat. Mr. Vajpayee, during his recent visit to Syria in November 2003, reiterated support for the Palestinian cause.

At the popular level in India, sympathy and support for the Palestinian struggle remain strong. At the same time, the people of India, who never forget a good turn done to them by anyone and at any time, remember that it was Israel that supplied badly-needed defense material at the time of the Kargil war in 1998 when Pakistan surreptitiously attacked India across the line of control in Kashmir.

India has extremely close, historical ties with the entire Middle East region. Several million Indians are working and contributing to the prosperity of the countries in the region. A great portion of India’s energy needs come from the region. India was, and remains, vastly concerned at the developments in Iraq and has decided, despite American approaches, not to send troops to Iraq.

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