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Shalom, Or Is It Salaam?
When the election results signalled a devastating defeat for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the one country distinctly worried was Israel. Voted out was Atal Behari Vajpayee, under whose government Indo-Israeli relations bloomed into a near-alliance.
Israel's nervousness about its future relations with India was reflected in the belated customary congratulatory phone call Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made to his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. Though the call came nearly a month after Manmohan assumed office, Israeli sources rationalise the delay explaining, "Sharon was very much preoccupied as was the new Indian prime minister. Also, Sharon wanted to update Manmohan on Israel's unilateral disengagement plan in Gaza." Yet, those who know Sharon feel he chose to wait because he wanted to assure himself that he wouldn't be snubbed. Sources say Sharon invited Manmohan to visit Israel.
Scepticism about the UPA government has risen because of the remarks of Indian foreign minister K. Natwar Singh, who was critical of the NDA's propensity to promote Indo-Israeli ties at the expense of the Palestinians. Israel's worries have been compounded also because the UPA government depends for its survival on the Left, a strident supporter of the Palestine cause and its leader Yasser Arafat. Will the Manmohan government become indifferent to Israel?
An answer to this will suggest itself at the time President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visits Israel. Sources here say Kalam's visit had been under "practical preparation", and it was understood that it would happen within a year. No dates had been fixed because just about nobody had envisaged the shock defeat of the NDA. The preparations have now been suspended. But officials here say this is because the Israeli ambassador in India awaits the arrival of the new foreign secretary Shyam Saran, before discussing with him Kalam's visit and other important issues. Call it coincidence or diplomatese for a calculated wait to know the direction of the wind in New Delhi.
Once Kalam's visit is decided upon, the two establishments will confront an even trickier question: Should the president visit only Israel or should he also squeeze in a trip to Arafat at his besieged Ramallah headquarters? Such questions have serious implications in Israel; it's either Sharon or Arafat. For instance, the foreign minister of Sweden, as good a friend of Arafat as the Congress, had to drop his plans to visit Ramallah before Israel decided to host him. In contrast, France has decided its foreign minister will go ahead and meet Arafat.
So what will India and Kalam do? Israeli sources say this piquant question wouldn't have risen had the NDA government been in power. One of them told Outlook, "If India feels Arafat can't be bypassed, well then, it could create a problem." Dr Shm'uel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Hertzliya, is more forthright: "Every state has to decide whether it is important for it to meet the Israeli leaders or Arafat. I don't think Israel will give India a 'discount' on the issue on which it has refused even the Europeans." Bar says he can understand India's dilemma: "India will feel uneasy in submitting to Israel's diktat. But they should understand that Israel too has internal pressures similar to India's."
But the past provides optimism about the possibility of ironing out wrinkles in the present. Says a senior Israeli source, "Indo-Israeli relations have reached the stage of no return (to the past). There are immense common interests at stake, and neither Israel nor India would want to jeopardise these." Mordechai Amihai, director of South and Southeast Asia in the foreign ministry here, enumerates these factors, "Threats of terror and the same challenges of globalisation and economic development. " He points out that Israel maintained its relations with the Congress at the time it was in Opposition, and Sharon met Sonia Gandhi on his visit to New Delhi last year. "Remember," Amihai adds, "the cornerstone of the current developed relations was laid under the earlier Congress government (in 1992) before Vajpayee came to power."
Amihai forgets that the Left wasn't there to blow the whistle.