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Palestine plays down Israel visit

New Delhi, Aug. 27: India’s growing ties with Israel and the forthcoming visit of Ariel Sharon, the first ever by a Prime Minister from Tel Aviv, have not gone down well with the Arab world and sections within the country. But the Palestinians seem least bothered.

“Hundreds of Sharons can come visiting. As long as India continues to support our cause, nothing matters. And so far there is nothing to suggest that there has been a change in India’s position,” Palestinian ambassador Osama Musa said.

“Maybe India will take this opportunity and tell Sharon to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and perhaps this will create the situation for peace to return to the Middle East,” he added.

Sharon’s visit, scheduled for the second week of September, has upset some in the country. They feel the Israeli Prime Minister’s first-ever tour was a clear signal that India was trying to abandon its traditional friend, Palestine, for new ally Israel. But the ambassador put such speculation to rest.

“So far there have been 18 resolutions in the UN on the Middle East. And every time India has supported the Palestinians,” Musa said.

Pointing out that India’s traditional stand was being continued by the BJP-led NDA in Delhi, the ambassador added: “A few months back we were gifted prime land in Chanakyapuri (the diplomatic enclave) by the government so that we can build our own embassy. We are grateful for this warm and friendly gesture from the Indian government and the people in this country.”

His confidence might have sprung from the apparent balancing act India has lined up to keep both Israel and Palestine happy.

Before Sharon embarks on his official visit, Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Sha’ath will touch down in Delhi. When he arrives this Friday on a three-day visit, Delhi will roll out the red carpet by giving access to the top tier of the Indian leadership.

He is expected to meet President A.P.J Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and perhaps also finance minister Jaswant Singh and defence minister George Fernandes. Foreign minister Yashwant Sinha is the only key figure whom Sha’ath will not be able to meet as he is out on a three-nation tour.

Musa stated that ties between his country and India were such that if for six months there were no visits from either side, questions would be raised on whether anything was amiss. “Our foreign minister will explain our stand on what is holding back peace from returning to the Middle East,” he said.

The NDA has made no bones about its affinity with Israel since coming to power. Advani, as home minister, and Singh, as foreign minister, visited Israel in 2000 to signal the importance Delhi attaches to its growing ties with Tel Aviv.

Neither visit was without controversy. The Arab world was unhappy with Advani’s reported remarks on nuclear cooperation with Israel.

Later, Singh raised hackles by arguing that India could not improve relations with Israel as leaders of the Nehruvian era did not want to do anything to hurt the sentiments of Muslims in the country.

Some Indian leaders’ attempt to draw parallels between the situation being faced by Tel Aviv and Delhi from terrorists met with sharp criticism from different quarters, both within and outside the country.

But Musa insisted that there had been no shift in India’s stand. “At the end of the day, India continues to support us. And for us that is most important,” he said.

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