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Israel May Not Attend Hearing on Security Barrier - 2004-02-11

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom says his government may not attend an upcoming hearing at the International Court of Justice on the security barrier it is constructing in the West Bank. The comment came as Mr. Shalom wrapped up a three-day visit to India, which underlined the steadily-warming friendship between the two countries.

Mr. Shalom told reporters in the Indian capital that Israel will decide "in the coming days" whether or not to participate in deliberations at the International Court of Justice on the controversial barrier it is building in the West Bank.

The court has been asked by the U.N. General Assembly to give a non-binding opinion on whether Israel is legally obliged to tear down the barrier, which encroaches on Palestinian territories. The court's first hearing is scheduled for February 23.

Israel has contested the right of the court to consider the matter, saying it is a "political" issue, to be decided between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Mr. Shalom said he asked India's leaders to support Israel's decision to build the barrier. Israel says the purpose is to keep suicide bombers out of the country, but Palestinians say the wall will disrupt tens of thousands of lives.

Mr. Shalom met top Indian leaders during his visit, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha. The discussions focused on enhancing cooperation in strategic and economic matters.

Mr. Shalom also called for closer cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism.

"We are both democracies and, unfortunately, we are both facing the threat of terrorism from our neighbors," he said. "That is why I believe we have many things that need be done in order to combat this global terrorism."

India established diplomatic relations with Israel only in 1992. But the relationship has grown dramatically in recent years, based on a common perception about the threat of terrorism by Islamic militant groups.

Another major factor in the relationship is India's increased purchases of Israeli defense equipment. Israel has emerged as a key defense supplier to India in recent years, selling it equipment ranging from assault rifles to missile systems.

Mr. Shalom said Israel has agreed to sell three sophisticated Phalcon early-warning radar systems to Delhi, and these will be delivered in the "near future." The $1.1 billion deal will be the biggest defense contract between the two countries, and the Phalcon system will give India an edge over its regional rivals, China and Pakistan.

Before arriving in the Indian capital, Mr. Shalom met Indian business leaders and members of the Indian Jewish community in Bombay.

Mr. Shalom comes to India five months after a high-profile visit to New Delhi by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - the first ever by an Israeli leader.