India's visiting strongman wants to expand nuclear cooperation with Israel
Ha'aretz, Friday, June 16, 2000
The task of hosting India's Minister of the Interior fell on the shoulders of Shimon Peres, Minister of Regional Development, ostensibly because Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is tied up in final status talks with the Palestinians.
But the choice of Peres contained more than a touch of coincidental symbolism. The Indian and Israeli ministers each are considered the architects of their nation's nuclear power.
Indian Interior Minister Lal Krishna Advani arrived on Wednesday and met Peres at the residence of India's ambassador in Herzliya Pituach.
On his first day he also managed to meet Mossad head Ephraim Halevi, and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter. Today he will see Prime Minister Barak.
Not every visiting interior minister managed to meet immediately (if ever) the prime minister and the top brass of Israel's secret services. This easily illustrated the great importance of the visit - but why?
It comes from a combination of factors - Advani's special status at home, and the strategic alliance that increasingly has emerged between the two states, which renewed diplomatic ties in 1994 after the Oslo agreements. Since then the relationship has blossomed.
India is Israel's third largest export market (after China and Turkey) for arms and defense equipment - sales amount to half a billion dollars and there are programs for additional initiatives.
Scientists involved in developing India's nuclear arms program visited Israel and included A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, science adviser to the prime minister. Advani is the leader of the ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janata) party. The Interior Ministry is considered the second post in the government after the prime minister - because of India's vast size (3 million sq.km. and a population of one billion), the ministry commands gigantic budgets and runs the police and security services.
The heads of these forces arrived with Advani and will meet for talks with their counterparts from Israel's police, Mossad and Army Intelligence.
As if this weren't enough, Advani enjoys the status of government "strong man." Fierce international opposition and domestic fears at home prevented him from becoming prime minister when his party vanquished the Congress Party in the 1996 elections. Advani stepped aside and his fellow party member Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister.
Fear of Advani and the BJP derives from their world view - hardline (Hindu) religious nationalism. The party and its leaders accumulated power and public support in the early 1990s after pledging to rebuild a Hindu temple in an area wracked by conflict with Moslems. The party philosophy is characterized by a religious devotion, crude nationalism, hostility to the Moslem neighbor-enemy Pakistan, and bolstering military power with a nuclear option.
In May 1998, the government of Vajpayee and Advani rocked the world with three nuclear tests - one of them of the strength of a hydrogen bomb. This set off a chain reaction in which Pakistan responded with its first tests and openly declared itself a nuclear power.
A clear indication of his ideology and Weltanschauung was audible in an interview with Advani. Unlike other visiting leaders, he did not hesitate to express his views openly and bluntly, even on such a sensitive matter as nuclear cooperation. "Yes," he said "I am in favor of cooperating with Israel in all areas, especially the nuclear field, and this should be strengthened." (His aides, bidding to play down the startling impression this statement might impart hastened to emphasize that he was not planning to visit Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona.)
Asked about past reports that the two countries had drawn up a joint plan to take out Pakistan's nuclear sites, the minister said no. "India has no offensive plans and nuclear cooperation with Israel is not aimed against any other state.