Without much fanfare, two warships from India anchored this week in Haifa port. The Mysore destroyer and the Godavri frigate came to demonstrate friendship, and for a meeting with Israel's navy; their arrival is another show of close relations between Israel and India, relations that reached a peak last year when Israel's prime minister visited New Delhi, and when the Phalcon airborne reconnaissance system was sold to India's air force. Trade in civilian goods between the two countries topped $1.5 billion over the year.
These budding relations with India reinforce a point that is usually forgotten in arguments in Israel about the pros and cons of the peace process. Both the right and the left are prone to quarrel about the question of whether the Oslo Accords opened the gates of redemption or heralded a national disaster; and these arguments focus on the number of casualties in terror attacks. They ignore the large benefit Israel reaped from the process, apart from the question of relations with Arabs. The Madrid Conference and the Oslo process did not resolve the dispute with the Palestinians, but they vastly transformed Israel's international status. The days in which the Palestine Liberation Organization maintained more embassies around the world than Israel did are long gone. Japanese cars and McDonald's, items that were once ruled out by the Arab boycott, are now part of Israel's landscape.
The most important dividends of the peace process were the agreement with Jordan and established relations with India and Turkey. The three countries became strategic allies with Israel, and the last two countries became magnets for tourism. True, the relations stem from a convergence of interests; but it is the peace process that toppled barriers impeding these relations. Israel's defense industries, which suffered a blow when the apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed, won new markets. The Israel Defense Forces found new areas for training, and Israel's intelligence network expanded.
Israel has managed to preserve these peace dividends during the intifada. A chain reaction of severed ties, which occurred during the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, did not repeat itself.
These special relations, however, currently face a test. The test has become tougher following the Rafah operation, as the agonizing of the Turkish prime minister indicated on Tuesday.
Elections this month in India restored the Congress Party to power; it has a tradition of neutrality on the Arab-Israeli dispute; and immediately after the elections, voices in New Delhi were heard talking about a "balanced" approach in the Middle East. The Times of India wrote that ideological affinity between Ariel Sharon and India's outgoing right-wing government, which was based upon "Islam-phobia," has come to an end; relations are now to be based purely on "enlightened national interest," wrote the newspaper.
India's Ambassador to Israel, Ramindar Jassal, does not anticipate major changes. He says that his country's policy is one of continuity in foreign relations, and that relations with Israel enjoy widespread backing in parliament. Similar reports have been relayed from Israel's embassy in New Delhi. After all, the Congress Party established relations with Israel in 1992, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh played a role as finance minister in this diplomatic initiative.
Israeli security officials believe that India will not pull out of existing arms deals. The question is whether it will continue to give preference to deals with Israel, a country which is considered a reliable source of advanced technology and which (unlike other states) did not enforce an embargo on New Delhi in times of tension. Will Israel continue to greet Israelis with open arms? Visits by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, scheduled for next November, will test this question.
Israeli officials hope that their counterparts in India, and in Turkey will give higher priority to their their security needs and their recoiling from terror than to Palestinian suffering and will adhere to their belief that relations with Israel help them in Washington. But there are pressures that complicate matters. Turkey's Islamic government sharply criticizes IDF activities in the territories; simultaneously, it sends reassurances to Jerusalem that nothing will impinge on its relations with Israel. Widely publicized, controversial actions such as the IDF operation in Rafah make it harder for Turkey to persist with this policy, and the same undoubtedly holds true with respect to India.
Israeli officials would be wise to keep these factors in mind, and ponder the state of their country's strategic alliances before they reach decisions on the next such IDF operation.
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