Home / Politics / Policy /  Narendra Modi likely to visit Israel in first half of this year

New Delhi: With India and Israel marking 25 years of diplomatic relations this month, both countries are hoping to exchange prime ministerial visits before the anniversary year closes in January 2018.

The first trip is likely to be that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Jewish state, that has rapidly become one of India’s key strategic partners, in the first half of 2017. It will mark a new chapter in bilateral relations given that it would be the first-ever visit to the Jewish country by an Indian prime minister.

Previously, India, as a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement, had cultivated close ties with the Arab states and shunned Israel for decades for its treatment of Palestinians.

But the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992 against the backdrop of fast changing geo-political developments—the break-up of the Soviet Union, US success in evicting then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991 and the Madrid conference also in 1991 which brought all stakeholders in the Arab Israeli conflict together for the first time in many years.

Ties between the two countries have soared since 1992—with defence and intelligence sharing a major part of the strategic equation between the two. India is Israel’s largest buyer of military hardware and the latter has been supplying various weapons systems, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles over the last few years but the transactions have largely remained out of public domain. Agriculture, innovation, technology and water conservation are some of the other areas where the two sides are cooperating closely.

“Since it is a special occasion —the commemoration of 25 years of diplomatic relations—both countries would like to see the exchange of a number of high level visits this year including at the prime ministerial level," said a person close to the developments who did not want to be named.

Publicly though, both sides are keeping their cards close to their chest.

“You have already seen that there has been a visit by the Israeli president," said minister of state M.J. Akbar when asked about the possibility of a visit by Modi. Akbar was referring to a visit to India in November 2016 by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin which completed the protocol requirements for a visit from Israel before Modi travels to that country. President Pranab Mukherjee had visited Israel in October 2015 as part of a three-nation tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

“There is certainly the option that exists of finding an appropriate calendar for bilateral visits but that is still something that is in the process of discussion," he said.

According to analysts, India under the stewardship of Modi has crafted a West Asia policy that has envisaged ties with Israel, the Arab states and Iran. Modi has already visited key Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as well as Shia majority Iran.

“There is no reason for India to limit its options in the region," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “When it comes to the Palestinians, they themselves are divided and the Arab countries pay lip service to the cause and collaborate with Israel; so why should India foreclose its options?" he asked.

Modi’s visit is unlikely before March given that the first half of the crucial budget session of Parliament commences on 31 January and ends on 9 February. The annual budget will be presented in Parliament on 1 February. Polls to five states close on 8 March, with results expected on 11 March. “Given this schedule, it is a fair assumption that the visit will be after that," said an Indian official seeking anonymity.

The first meeting between Modi and Netanyahu took place in September 2014 on the margins of the UN General assembly session in New York —marking the first meeting between an Israeli and Indian prime minister in a decade. Then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon made a visit to India in September 2003.

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