In advance of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the region on Sunday, the Indian ministry issued two press releases this week showing the tight rope it is walking between flowering ties with Israel and not to wanting to alienate the Muslim world.
One statement issued on Tuesday announced her visit to the “State of Palestine” on January 17. Noting that this is Swaraj’s first visit to the West Asia region, the statement pointed out that “Palestine is the first destination in the region,” something that “reflects the importance India holds for Palestine in its engagement with the countries of the region.”
India came under scathing criticism from Palestinian officials last summer when on a couple of occasions it abstained at the UN on votes regarding Israel, rather than reflexively voting with the Palestinians and against Israel as it has done in the past.
Swaraj, the statement said, “will meet with the Palestinian leadership and review India-Palestinian bilateral relations.
India shares traditionally close relations with the State of Palestine and contributing actively through capacity building and human resource development initiatives with Palestine. The visit will also reaffirm India’s continued political, diplomatic and developmental support to Palestine.”
On the same day, the External Affairs Ministry released another statement saying that Swaraj will pay an official visit to Israel from January 17-18.
“India and Israel share close and multifaceted relationship,” the statement said, continuing, “The two sides share firm belief in the values of democracy and free market economy. India and Israel also share close relation in the fields of agriculture, science & technology and education.”
After stating that the visit will “augment India’s bilateral ties with Israel and further strengthen the linkages between the two sides,” it adds: “India’s relations with Israel are part of its engagement with the broader West Asia region and are independent to its relations with any country in the region.”
Traditionally very close to the Arab world, with some 7 million Indians living and working in the Persian Gulf and a Muslim population of some 135 million, India – which has closer ties now with Israel than perhaps ever before – walks a careful path between wanting to encourage those ties, but at the same time not alienating the Arab and Muslim worlds.
During her visit, Swaraj – who served in the past as chairwoman of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Group – is scheduled to meet with President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. She is also scheduled to hold an event with the Indian community living here. She visited once before in 2009.
Swaraj’s visit comes just three months after President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel, on the first trip here by an Indian head of state. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom Netanyahu has developed good relations, has also been slated for some time to make a visit to Israel, which would be the first ever by an Indian prime minister. No date, however, has been formalized for that trip.
In a related development, the External Affairs Ministry announced earlier this month the appointment of senior diplomat Pavan Kapoor as India’s new envoy to Israel, replacing Jaideep Sarkar.
Kapoor, who has previously served in Indian missions in Moscow, London, Geneva and Kiev, is currently India’s high commissioner in the Mozambique capital of Maputo. He will replace current ambassador Jaideep Sarkar.