- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

JERUSALEM Estranged until 10 years ago, India and Israel are steadily moving into an intimate strategic partnership.

When Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan visited India in 1979, his hosts demanded that he come secretly, out of deference to India's close ties to the Arab world. Now, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is planning to visit soon as a follow-up to the feting early this month of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

"We find ourselves in the same camp that fights terrorism, and we have to develop our relationship according to that," said Zvi Gabay, the ministry's deputy director-general for Asian affairs. "Both countries have suffered greatly from terrorism, and we have to get rid of this problem."

Israel and India have forged strong ties in areas ranging from agriculture to space technology. But it is in the military realm that relations are really taking off: Israel is now India's No. 2 weapons supplier, after Russia.

In one respect, the friendship may be developing too fast for Washington.

Israel plans to sell Phalcon advanced surveillance aircraft to India for an estimated $1 billion. The American fear is that, if transferred now, the Phalcon could affect the delicate balance of power in the tense standoff between India and Pakistan. Among other things, the planes would give India improved ability to coordinate air strikes.

"We actually support the transfer," but the United States is consulting with Israel "about the transfer, including the system's capability and timing," the Associated Press quoted State Department spokesman Philip Reeker as saying.

John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, held talks in Israel this week in which concerns about the timing of the sale were expected to come up, while Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes was expected to push the Americans for the planes.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a member of the Knesset from Mr. Sharon's Likud party, said "there may be a question of timing with the U.S., but there is no question of principle" about the sale, which he said is extremely important for Israeli military industries.

Two years ago, Israel was forced by the United States to cancel a deal to sell Phalcons to China, out of concern it would have altered the balance of power between China and Taiwan. Israel faces costly Chinese demands for compensation.

Mr. Gabay stressed that Israel would like the conflict between India and Pakistan to be solved diplomatically, and that "Israel is not participating with India in any war."

But according to Jane's Defence Weekly, Israel was an ammunition supplier during India's border conflict with Pakistan in 1999, and last March, the weekly said that members of Israeli security forces were regularly visiting the Kashmir border. The Defense Ministry did not respond to queries on the matter.

"Russia delivers the hardware tanks, aircraft and ships and Israel provides the weapons systems the radar, the electronic control systems, and other high-tech add-ons," Jane's quoted an Indian military official as saying.

"India finds it immensely beneficial to learn from Israel's experience in dealing with terrorism, since Israel, too, has long suffered from crossborder terrorism," an Indian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said during Mr. Peres' visit.

The rhetoric was very different during the 1960s, when India, as leader of the nonaligned movement, had close ties with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who viewed Israel as the arm of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

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