Monday, 30th October 2017

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Invite to Israel, not quite a bear hug

Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Israel counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to visit India early next year during a meeting in Paris last night, but also signalled recognition of concerns within his own strategic establishment over too pronounced a tilt towards the West Asian nation.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 2.12.15
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Benjamin Netanyahu

New Delhi, Dec. 1: Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Israel counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to visit India early next year during a meeting in Paris last night, but also signalled recognition of concerns within his own strategic establishment over too pronounced a tilt towards the West Asian nation.

Netanyahu, who is expected to visit in the first half of 2016, will be only the second Israel Prime Minister to travel to India, after Ariel Sharon in 2003. The Modi government is keen to pull out of the closet ties that have steadily grown, through shadowy talks and defence deals, since India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.

But Modi, earlier expected to visit Israel by December this year, did not commit to a trip any time soon during his conversation with Netanyahu, senior officials familiar with the government's West Asia policy said.

Modi also met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas briefly in Paris, amid growing worries in South Block - home to the ministry of external affairs - that an early trip to Israel by the Indian Prime Minister could backfire on New Delhi.

The personal invitation to Netanyahu to visit India, after President Pranab Mukherjee had delivered a formal invitation during his trip to Jerusalem in September, represents a compromise, the officials said.

Modi will get to signal his bonhomie with Netanyahu and his interest in strengthening ties with Israel, while putting on hold what would be a truly transformative visit to Jerusalem, where no Indian Prime Minister has ever travelled.

"There are three things other countries want from Israel - first, Israeli technology, second, Israeli technology and third, Israeli technology," Netanyahu had said last month in Washington during a visit, before confirming his plans to visit India. "Whether it is India, which I will be soon going to visit, or any other country."

Traditionally, India has been reticent about publicly advertising its relationship with Israel since 1992, a policy shaped largely by pragmatism driven by the fact that over seven million Indians work in Arab nations where the occupation of Palestinian territories continues to evoke anger.

But in 2014, Modi met Netanyahu in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and then described him as a "friend" this year at a time the Israel Prime Minister had made provocative pre-election remarks insisting he would not allow a Palestinian state under his watch.

On July 3, India abstained from a key UN vote critical of Israel after Netanyahu dialled Modi for support. The ministry of external affairs claimed India abstained on a technicality - the resolution up for voting mentioned the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which India is not a signatory. But as The Telegraph revealed on July 5, India had voted at least twice in the past in favour of resolutions that referred to the ICC, exposing an inconsistency in the government's argument.

India's abstention, which followed closely an announcement by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj that Modi would visit Israel soon, upset Palestine, forcing New Delhi into damage control. Secretary (east) in the foreign office, Anil Wadhwa, was rushed for talks with Abbas and other members of the Palestinian leadership.

Worried about the regional West Asian perceptions of an India seen as betraying a cause it has long supported, the Modi government slowly recalibrated its Israel outreach. Instead of Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in September, but he also travelled to Palestine and Jordan.

Modi visited the UAE in August after skipping trips to West Asia during his first year in office, and will now visit Saudi Arabia before making any trip to Israel, officials said.

But the recalibration does not mean the Modi government has given up its keenness to publicly demonstrate warmth with Israel. Modi's meeting with Netanyahu, and the invitation to visit India, are signals of that unchanged intent, the officials said.