Ties With Israel Look Solid Following Indian Election

By Marc Perelman and Ori Nir

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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A leading Israeli politician expressed confidence that relations between India and Israel would remain on a sound footing despite the change of government in Delhi.

“I very much hope that the strong contacts we have with India will not be harmed [as a result of the change in government in India] because they are based on shared interests and a deep friendship between the two nations,” Tommy Lapid, the head of the Shinui party, the junior government coalition partner, told the Forward. “In such situations, you always fear that something will change, but I very much hope that nothing will.”

The secularist Congress Party upset the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last week during a snap parliamentary election. The BJP had called the early poll in the hope of cashing in on the country’s strong economic growth and recent peace overtures toward its archenemy, Pakistan — a safe bet according to pollsters, analysts and diplomats. But the Congress Party, which was founded by Mahatma Gandhi and dominated India’s post-independence politics for 51 years, staged a major upset last week.

The BJP, which took power in 1998, had been greeted by Israel and Jewish groups as a welcome change in Delhi. The Congress Party was seen as tilting toward Moscow during the Cold War and siding with the Arab world against Israel. Under BJP rule, by contrast, India has become a major purchaser of Israeli-made weapons. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials in both countries have worked, along with Jewish communal leaders in America, to portray Israel and India as dependable allies of the United States in the war against Islamic terrorism.

Experts say that while they expect the return of Congress to prompt more belligerent public pronouncements regarding Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the BJP’s efforts to strengthen Israeli-Indian are likely not to be undone.

For instance, they noted that India established full diplomatic relations in Israel in 1992 under a Congress Party-led government.

Teresita C. Schaffer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia and now the director for the South Asia Program Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., noted that the Congress Party presided over the first five years of the India-Israel official relationship, and thus was unlikely to want to damage relations with a major military supplier.

“However, I am guessing that there will be a learning period on a range of foreign affairs issues during which you may see a few tough public statements on Iraq, U.S. unilateralism, Israel-Palestine and other similar issues,” she said. “Then things will settle down.”

But Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, argued that observers should not be so quick to ignore the many Congress Party leaders who have voiced anti-Israel and anti-American sentiments. Speaking in Washington this week at the annual Aipac conference, Cohen argued that the change in government in India “does matter.” Still, he added, a major change was “not likely.”

“The key military strategic relationship — that will continue,” he told the Aipac audience. “No Indian leader would be crazy enough to abandon that.”

In addition to the strategic relationship, the growing economic ties between both countries in areas such as high tech, agriculture and medicine provide another incentive to maintain a “mature relationship,” according to Jason Isaacson, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s office of governmental and international affairs.

He pointed out that while Congress already had vouched to continue peace efforts with Pakistan, “some questions” remained regarding the relationship with the United States because of disagreements over Iraq and Afghanistan from within the Congress and its likely coalition partners.

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