Israeli Premier Sharon Arrives in India to Strengthen Bilateral Ties

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Ariel Sharon arrived in New Delhi on Monday for the first-ever visit to India by an Israeli prime minister, hoping to cement blossoming defense and trade ties that have led to talk of a three-way strategic alliance with the United States.

Analysts expect Sharon's meetings with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (search), President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and other Indian officials to put the seal of approval on the sale of an advanced Israeli airborne radar package.

The deal has drawn protest from India's nuclear rival, Pakistan, which warned Monday of the "dangerous consequences" of military ties between Israel and India.

"I think such a collaboration should be avoided at all costs," Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan (search) told reporters, adding it would hurt peace in the region.

Sharon made no comment to the media at the high-security airport in New Delhi, where he was greeted by 25 Israeli children waving flags and singing a song about peace.

Sharon can expect street protests by leftist and Muslim groups who note India has been a longtime supporter of the Palestinian struggle.

Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Muslim cleric of New Delhi's main mosque, called on "all who believe in justice and democracy" to join a protest march on Tuesday.

"Sharon is the man behind all savage and brutal activities of Israel against Palestinian Muslims," he said in a statement Monday.

Vajpayee said Monday he was confident Sharon's visit would boost ties with Israel without diluting India's support of the Palestinian cause.

"Our relations will be further strengthened," Vajpayee said, according to the Press Trust of Indian news agency. He said New Delhi had always taken a "principled stand" on the Palestinian's plight for a homeland.

The Israeli and Indian leaders are expected to discuss the possible sale to India of the Arrow missile defense system, developed by Israel and the United States; Iran's reported attempts to acquire nuclear weapons; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and the role of radical Islamic groups operating in Pakistan and Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan province divided between the South Asian rivals.

Sharon's visit comes just as the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 has been dealt a serious blow by the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli-Palestinian relations have been further roiled by an Israeli military campaign to target the militant group Hamas after a Hamas suicide bomber killed 22 people on a Jerusalem bus on Aug. 19. Sharon said in an interview published Sunday in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that all Hamas members were now "marked for death."

Sharon will talk with Indian leaders about methods for fighting terrorism. The two countries have a Joint Working Group on counterterrorism.

Indian and United States defense officials met last month in Washington where they declared a "new strategic partnership."

Israel has its own deep friendship with the Americans, prompting Israeli and American analysts to talk of a possible three-way alliance in which India's proximity to the Gulf region could serve Israeli and U.S. efforts to pre-empt any hostile action by countries such as Iran.

"India could be an important security partner for both the United States and Israel," former Pentagon official Richard Speier wrote in a Sept. 3 analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Like them, India is threatened by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles that deliver them and radical Islamist terrorists," Speier told the U.S.-based think tank.

After initial doubts, the United States recently gave its blessing for India's purchase of four Israeli-made PHALCON airborne early warning systems (search), at an estimated $1 billion for the package. That does not sit well with India's nuclear neighbors, Pakistan and China.

Hamid Gul, a retired army general and former head of Pakistan's spy agency, said Sharon's visit and the U.S.-approved deals were disconcerting.

"After using Pakistan as a front-line state in the war against terrorism, America has started encouraging Israel to sign new defense deals with India," he said. "America's policy will kill the conventional balance in the region."

India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992. Since then they have developed thriving commercial and military ties. Israeli experts say India has bought Israeli missiles, radar, communications equipment and guns, though the Israeli Defense Ministry refuses to comment.

Non-defense trade between the two countries was about $1.2 billion in 2002, with diamonds accounting for more than half, according to Israeli government data.