Home / Politics / Policy /  Benjamin Netanyahu begins landmark tour, calls India a global power

New Delhi: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in New Delhi on Sunday on a landmark visit to India that will see emphasis given to forging technology and innovation partnerships to elevate ties as the two countries mark 25 years of diplomatic relations.

Receiving the Israeli Prime Minister at the airport in New Delhi was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reciprocating a gesture extended to him by Netanyahu when Modi visited Israel in July—the first ever by an Indian PM to the Jewish nation. Modi’s stand-alone 4-6 July 2017 visit to Israel—after trips to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran on separate occasions—was seen as bringing ties “out of the closet".

“We have landed in India. Thank you to my good friend Narendra Modi for the warm welcome!" said a Twitter post by Netanyahu soon after his arrival. This was in response to Modi’s post which said “Welcome to India, my friend PM @netanyahu! Your visit to India is historic and special. It will further cement the close friendship between our nations."

Netanyahu is only the second Israeli PM to visit India—the first such visit took place in 2003 when Ariel Sharon was in New Delhi at the invitation of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The visit marks the close of celebrations marking 25 years of India establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Once seen as a strong backer of Palestine, New Delhi announced the opening of diplomatic ties with Israel in January 1992 after Israeli and Palestinian delegations began peace talks that culminated in an accord between the two in 1993. India-Israel ties have soared since then with defence, agriculture, water conservation, high technology and innovation being the focus areas for cooperation. In particular the past three years—since the Modi government took office—have seen a flurry of visits. Apart from Modi’s own visit to Israel, then President Pranab Mukherjee and Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj have also travelled to Israel, signifying an upscaling both in terms of visibility and focus.

But a reminder of the complicated geopolitical reality in West Asia as well as the need for India to do a balancing act between ties with Israel and its Arab neighbours came when India voted against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the UN General Assembly last month. The move was criticized by some sections in India but the government defended it position citing traditional policy on the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

While India has good relations with Israel and would like to better those ties, “there cannot be full convergence in the interests of any two countries," former Indian ambassador to Israel Arun K. Singh said at a seminar on India-Israel relations last week. “We have stakes in the Arab countries with more than 8 million expatriate Indians in the Gulf region, a large portion of our energy supplies are coming from the Arab countries, remittances from our workers there. Israel sees Iran as an existential threat whereas we don’t view Iran as such," he said.

Netanyahu’s delegation comprises a large business delegation of 130—a clear sign that Israel wants to upgrade economic linkages with Asia’s third largest economy. “We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power. This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests," Netanyahu said before leaving for India, a PTI report said.

“On this visit I intend to strengthen bilateral relations even more. This visit is an opportunity to enhance cooperation with a global economic, security, technology and tourism power," he added. Bilateral trade is currently at $4 billion excluding defence purchases by India, according to Indian government figures.

Soon after his arrival in New Delhi, Netanyahu and Modi paid respects to Indian soldiers who were killed in a victorious assault on the fortified city of Haifa during World War I in 1918. A roundabout in New Delhi was renamed Teen Murti Haifa Chowk in memory of the event. Modi hosted a private dinner for Netanyahu at his residence on Sunday. Monday is one of the main days of the visit with Netanyahu and Modi holding official talks and signing bilateral pacts. On Tuesday the Israeli PM is to deliver the inaugural speech at the Raisina Dialogue, an annual foreign policy-related discussion, in New Delhi after a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. He will also participate in the Indo-Israeli CEO Forum in Delhi. On the second leg of his visit, Netanyahu will travel to Gujarat, where he will visit the Centre for Excellence in Vadrad and inaugurate a Centre of Excellence for date palms in Bhuj via video conference. On the last leg of his visit, Netanyahu will visit Mumbai where he will meet with a cross section of business leaders as well as top names from the Hindi film industry in a bid to woo them to come to Israel for making movies in an event called “Shalom Bollywood."

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