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Delhi tempers Sharon show

New Delhi, Sept. 5: Two days before Ariel Sharon lands, India has made it clear it considers Yasser Arafat — a man the US and Israel love to hate — to be the main leader of Palestine.

“We accept and recognise Yasser Arafat as the President of Palestine,” a senior Indian official said, adding Mahmoud Abbas was “only President Arafat’s Prime Minister”.

The Americans and the Israelis have made it clear that they would like the world community to ignore Arafat and start focusing on Abbas as the new leader of Palestine.

Sharon’s visit to India — rescheduled to begin from Monday — will be the first by an Israeli Prime Minister to Delhi. It is also the first Asian country Sharon will be visiting.

Although his trip signals the maturing of bilateral ties in the last decade, Delhi appears to be making a conscious decision not to go overboard. This is aimed at assuring the domestic audience and the Arab world that there will not be any fundamental change in Delhi’s stand on Palestine.

But it will be interesting to note the choice of words — specially on terrorism and the need to fight it unitedly — in the joint statement likely to be issued at the end of Sharon’s visit.

“It is more of a plus for Israel than India,” a senior official said of Sharon’s four-day visit. He said India, with its billion people and secular credentials, was perhaps the only country where Jews had never been persecuted. So Sharon — whose hard line on Palestine has made him unpopular in several countries — was looking for legitimacy by coming to India.

During Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Sha’ath’s visit to Delhi last week, a deliberate attempt was made to assure him there was no watering down of India’s stand on Palestine. Today, Delhi decided to repeat it.

“Palestine is a cardinal point of our foreign policy since Independence,” a senior foreign ministry official said. On a possible move by Israel to get Arafat expelled from Palestine, he said: “Such speculations are only in media reports. But I think the Israelis will think very carefully before taking any such decision.”

The remarks are indication that though India considers its growing relationship with Israel as important, it is not willing to nurture it at the cost of traditional friend Palestine.

A number of agreements on agriculture, education, culture and health is likely to be signed. But no defence deals will be struck though the business delegation — of some 30 members — coming with Sharon will include some persons from the Israeli arms industry.

Sharon is due to meet almost all the top members of the Indian leadership, including President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his deputy L.K. Advani and leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi. He is also scheduled to address captains of business and industry in Delhi and Mumbai as strengthening business ties is one of the main objectives.

India has said it will not play the role of an “honest broker” between Israel and Palestine to ensure that peace returns to West Asia. But it will not hesitate to state how it perceives the situation evolving there and how the peace process can be revived.

The Indian leadership will hear out the Israeli side of the story. But it will also share with Sharon the information it has got from its interaction with Palestine and the Arab world.

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