Israel beckons PM, diplomats cautious

A meeting with Israel's President in Singapore on Sunday has revived a plan for a possible path-breaking visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tel Aviv, but sections within the diplomatic community are cautioning against rushing into a trip at a time the region is on fire.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 1.04.15
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New Delhi, March 30: A meeting with Israel's President in Singapore on Sunday has revived a plan for a possible path-breaking visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tel Aviv, but sections within the diplomatic community are cautioning against rushing into a trip at a time the region is on fire.

India is quietly examining a possible trip by Modi to Israel that would make him the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to the West Asian nation that is a pariah for most of New Delhi's traditional Arab allies, senior officials have confirmed to The Telegraph.

India had earlier contemplated an invitation for Modi to visit Israel in the first half of this year - but dropped the idea after Israel announced elections that were held this month.

But several current and former diplomats, even those strongly supportive of India strengthening ties with Israel, are warning that a visit any time in the coming few months could jeopardise India's larger interests in that region.

A series of recent, politically and diplomatically explosive comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of Israel's elections, and Tel Aviv's tensions with Washington, are the current triggers for the concerns over any early visit.

But the debate over the possibility of a Modi visit - which is possible as early as this autumn - also captures the larger diplomatic dilemmas India continues to face in its ties with Israel, even with a Prime Minister in charge who is not shy of demonstrating friendship or respect for Tel Aviv.

"It would certainly be a defining moment for India-Israel ties, and this is a relationship the Prime Minister (Modi) is keen on strengthening," a senior official said. "But there are real concerns of a larger blowback, and there's unlikely to be a decision that doesn't take those into account."

Israel President Reuven Rivlin invited Modi to visit Tel Aviv when they met yesterday on the margins of the state funeral of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Netanyahu too had invited Modi when they met in New York last September during the United Nations General Assembly, where the Israel Prime Minister had declared that "the sky is the limit" for ties between the two nations.

When Netanyahu was re-elected after a bruising campaign earlier this month, Modi sent him warm greetings in English and Hebrew on Twitter. "Congratulations my friend Bibi," Modi tweeted, referring to Netanyahu by the nickname he is widely known by. "Recall our New York meeting last September warmly."

In January at the Vibrant Gujarat summit, Modi met Israel's agriculture minister Yair Shamir, and then in February met visiting Israel defence minister Moshe Ya'alon.

But it is no longer unique for Israel leaders to visit India. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had invited then Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India, and Sharon spent three days here in September 2003.

Indian ministers visit Israel far more rarely - Jaswant Singh in 2000 remains the only Indian foreign minister to travel to Tel Aviv. Home minister Rajnath Singh is the only Modi government minister to have visited Israel so far.

A proposal for foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to visit Israel was cancelled, and a suggestion that President Pranab Mukherjee travel to Tel Aviv was dropped.

Modi has himself visited Israel once - as Gujarat chief minister in 2006. But India's positions on key West Asia crises stand fundamentally different from those recently espoused by Modi's "friend" Netanyahu.

"There's too much at stake in a visit by the Prime Minister to Israel just now," a retired diplomat said, requesting anonymity because he still represents the Indian government at key international negotiations. "That whole region is already on fire, and what Netanyahu is doing is to throw a tanker of oil into that fire."

India wants a diplomatic deal between Iran and six world powers - the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany - that it hopes will allow New Delhi to increase its oil imports from Tehran, currently curtailed because of economic sanctions.

But Netanyahu has declared he is fundamentally opposed to any deal struck with Iran, underscored by his vociferous opposition to any pact at the US Congress days ahead of Israel's election that has deepened tensions between the White House and Tel Aviv.

India also firmly supports a two-state solution where Israel and Palestine coexist side by side peacefully - a solution Netanyahu too had said he backs in 2009.

But Netanyahu, a day before the Israel election that was expected to prove a cliffhanger, declared he would not allow a Palestinian state on his watch. And as voters trooped into polling booths, Netanyahu publicly urged his supporters to out-vote Arab Israelis - who constitute over 20 per cent of the country's population - who he claimed were turning out in large numbers to defeat him.

"What Netanyahu is doing is recklessness of the highest order," the former diplomat said. "And the government must be careful not to appear to be backing him."