- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

NEW DELHI — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected in New Delhi today, with three of his ministers and more than two dozen influential business and defense industry executives.

The visit marks the high point of a budding friendship between countries that share a British colonial past and tensions with Islamic extremists in the present, as well as a nuclear capability and strong high-tech industries.

Not all Indians will welcome Mr. Sharon, however, and India’s neighbor and chief nuclear adversary, Pakistan, will be watching warily.

The visit could tilt the balance of power on the subcontinent if India receives significant military assistance from technologically advanced Israel.

The three-day trip is the first by an Israeli leader since a reluctant India — long a supporter of the Palestinian struggle for a homeland — established relations with Israel in 1992.

“It’s a message that the countries of the Middle East cannot dictate who will be our friends and who will be our adversaries,” said P.R. Kumaraswamy, an Israel specialist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Despite planned protests by leftist groups and declarations by politicians that Mr. Sharon is an oppressor who has no place in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, India is eager to seal some major defense deals and show off its intensified security to Pakistan.

New Delhi hopes to complete an agreement to buy three of Israel’s advanced Phalcon radar systems. The United States, Israel’s most powerful ally, recently lifted its objection to the $1 billion deal, despite warnings from Pakistan that it could raise tensions in South Asia and destabilize the region.

Hamid Gul, a retired general and former head of Pakistan’s spy agency, said Mr. Sharon’s visit and the U.S.-approved deals were disconcerting.

“After using Pakistan as a front-line state in the war against terrorism, America has started encouraging Israel to sign new defense deals with India,” he said. “America’s policy will kill the conventional balance in the region.”

India also wants Washington to allow Israel to sell its Arrow antimissile system, which was developed with U.S. support and could ward off nuclear threats from Pakistan. Washington is worried that the sale could set off an arms race on the volatile subcontinent.

The neighbors have fought three wars since independence from Britain and nearly started a fourth last year after India blamed Pakistan for a deadly suicide attack in New Delhi in December 2001.

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