The visit of the Israeli prime minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, to India was predictable in its outcome. There is a clear and obvious convergence of interests between India and Israel and that was revealed during the Israeli leader’s visit. The real challenge, however, is to ensure that the growth of bilateral relationships does not destabilize India’s or Israel’s engagements with other states or regions. There is no doubt that in the relatively short span of eleven years of formal diplomatic relations, India and Israel have established a strong partnership. The one obvious area of common interest is the fight against terrorism and extremism. Both India and Israel see themselves, quite correctly, as democratic states located in unfriendly neighbourhoods of dictatorial states. In the past, India and Israel have witnessed horrendous acts of terrorism carried out on their soil by radical Islamic militants. This naturally calls for a sharing of experiences, intelligence and strategies. And this has been happening over the past few years, and cooperation in this area has been further cemented by Mr Sharon’s visit.
In addition, India and Israel have also established a strong trading relationship especially in the area of defence cooperation. Israel is on the verge of supplying India with Phalcon airborne warning and control systems, which will act as a real force multiplier. This, of course, has generated tremendous anxiety within Pakistan. In the areas of environment, health and agriculture too, both countries are engaged in meaningful cooperation and have much to learn from each other. There is, however, a danger in emphasizing the common ground too much, especially on terrorism related issues. India has a long tradition of support for the Palestinian cause and while new realism demands a closer relationship with Israel, it is difficult to completely do away with this historic legacy. Indeed, Mr. Sharon is the first ever-Israeli prime minister to visit India since full diplomatic relations were established in 1992. Not surprisingly, there were hundreds of protestors, particularly from leftwing groups, who demonstrated against the visit of Mr Sharon. Moreover, a much publicized closer relationship can create problems within India, especially by alienating the Muslim community, and it could also impact on New Delhi’s relationship with the Arab world. The relationship with Israel has already started inviting similarities between Kashmir and Palestine, and the forthcoming conference of the Organization of Islamic Conference Countries in Malaysia may play this up. All this, of course, must not mean that India should not build strong ties with Israel, but a discreet cooperative relationship can build stronger foundations than highly publicized visits.