The scheduled visit sometime this summer of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marking 25 years of diplomatic relations, will mark two firsts: the first visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister and the first time an Indian leader visits the Middle East without making a stop at the Palestinian Authority.Perhaps in compensation, Modi has invited PA President Mahmoud Abbas to visit India. Indian officials have noted that India remains committed to the two-state solution, and despite skipping the PA on this visit, Modi’s government has taken pains to reassure Muslim nations that India still supports the Palestinian goal of independence.New Delhi has been working tirelessly with Arab countries to soften the potential fallout from Modi’s visit to Israel. This has included such courtesies as inviting Abu Dhabi’s crown prince as its chief guest for Republic Day celebrations. Saudi King Salman is also considered likely to make a state visit to India this year.
Previous visits to Israel by Indian officials have meticulously included requisite stops in Ramallah. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s trip to Israel in October 2015 – the first by an Indian head of state – included both Tel Aviv and the seat of Palestinian power in the West Bank.Both Israel and the PA were also visited by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in January 2016.There has apparently been a subtle shift in India’s relationship with the two peoples that claim much of the same territory. It has been building steadily for a quarter of a century with the Israeli side, particularly in the defense field, where India has benefited from Israeli research to the betterment of its defensive capability. All the Palestinians get from their relationship is basically pro forma voting at the UN.“India hopes to host Prime Minister Netanyahu within this year – that is, by January 2018,” Secretary of External Affairs Amar Sinha said in Delhi in February at a ceremony launching the logo marking 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. He unveiled the logo along with Israeli Ambassador Daniel Carmon. Sinha said there is a “conscious effort” to give a multi-dimensional focus to the bilateral relationship by taking it beyond the recent leap in the defense relationship.“While we get a lot of Israeli tourists, we would also like retired Israeli professors to spend a semester here in India teaching,” Sinha said.To that end, Modi’s visit is likely to include a substantial agenda on joint research, development and innovation – but with a special emphasis on defense systems.Early this month, he approved the $2.5 billion purchase of an Israeli-developed anti-aircraft missile system for the Indian Army: 40 batteries of the Medium-Range Surface- to-Air Defense Missile (MR-SAM) system, known in Israel as the Barak 8. Delivery of the first unit for deployment in the field is expected in 2023.Additional joint Indian-Israeli missile programs are under way, including the Long-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM) system, which will be deployed on Indian warships.Not unexpectedly considering the preparation, Modi’s planned visit has not led to any protests from the Arab world, according to Bobby Ghosh, editor-in-chief of the mass circulation Hindustan Times. He wrote that no Arab state had voiced displeasure at the visit, either publicly or through diplomatic back channels.Ghosh wrote that if someone would have told him in the 1970s or 1980s that an Indian premier would one day make an official visit to Israel, “I’d have laughed you out of the room.” But, today, he wrote, the two countries are “locked in a tight embrace of economic, defense and security interests.”According to Defense News, India is now Israel’s largest arms client, while Israel is India’s third-largest weapons provider, after Russia and the US. President Reuven Rivlin made the first visit by an Israeli president to India in two decades last November, reciprocating Mukherjee’s visit. Even though India’s defense, security and economic relations with Israel have been on the upswing since the 1990s, Modi has earned the credit for enhancing the strategic dimension of the relationship by bringing it out of the politically correct closet of non-productive Palestinian advocacy.
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