Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin a five-day visit to India on Sunday, leading a 102-member trade delegation to strengthen economic and defence ties, and to build on the personal rapport he struck with prime minister Narendra Modi last summer.
Mr Netanyahu’s trip, which marks 25 years of full diplomatic relations between India and Israel, is only the second by an Israeli prime minister to India, following Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2003.
The chemistry between Mr Modi and Mr Netanyahu was evident in Israel last July: the warm embraces; the walk on the beach, unaccompanied by minders; the statements affirming the challenges shared by the two countries. “He speaks about you all the time,” one of Mr Netanyahu’s ministers told Mr Modi.
Mr Modi also took the unusual step of not visiting Palestine during his trip — a side visit that has otherwise become the norm for leaders going to Israel.
Events since then seemed as if they might rock the relationship somewhat. In November, India cancelled a US$500 million (Dh1.84 billion) order for anti-tank missiles from Israel. More significantly, earlier this month India voted for the United Nations resolution that criticised US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Mr Modi also plans to visit Palestine in February, following a trip to the UAE.
But Israel and India have been at pains to emphasise that these events will not alter the bilateral relationship.
“Well, I would have preferred a different vote, to be frank, but I don’t think it materially changes the tremendous flowering of relations between India and Israel,” Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday. Of the cancelled missile deal, he added: “I think you are going to see an expansion of economic and other ties regardless of this or that deal.”
Kabir Taneja, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based think tank, pointed out that Mr Netanyahu’s five-day trip was “a long time for any state visit. So the optics are strong from the get-go.”
The Israeli prime minister will land in New Delhi, where Mr Modi will host a private dinner for him on Sunday. In the capital, Mr Netanyahu will pay a visit to the presidential palace, preside over a meeting of Indian and Israeli businessmen and inaugurate the Raisina Dialogue, a three-day foreign policy forum convened by ORF.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Modi then travel to Gujarat, the Indian prime minister’s home state, for a visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and an investment roadshow. In Mumbai on Thursday, Mr Netanyahu will meet business leaders, attend a memorial for the victims of the 2008 terror attacks on the city, and appear at Shalom Bollywood, a film industry event.
Both India and Israel are eager to expand bilateral trade, from the present annual value of $4bn to $10bn by 2022. Defence infrastructure plays a large part in this. Israel sells almost $1bn in defence hardware to India every year and is one of the country’s top four arms suppliers.
The cancellation of the anti-tank missile contract was, in this context, not a significant setback in the long term, Mr Taneja said. The deal is now being reworked as a “government-to-government” contract, so that India purchases the missiles from the Israeli state rather than from a company based in Israel, he said.
Similarly, India’s vote at the UN and Mr Modi’s planned trip to Palestine will not affect the growing relationship between the leaders, he said.
Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have not tried “to hide the fact that they find big commonalities between India and Israel”, Mr Taneja said.
“Both are seen as victims of Islamist terrorism for decades,” he said. “Both Netanyahu and Modi have common political and ideological backgrounds, with nationalism leading the narratives from a Hindu point of view for Modi and Zionist point of view for Netanyahu.”
Nevertheless, India will try to maintain a balance in its dealings with Israel and Palestine.
“Let’s not forget that before Modi visited Israel last year, he hosted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi as well,” Mr Taneja said.
The UN vote was influenced, in part, by Mr Modi’s domestic political challenges and a reluctance to give the opposition ammunition by abstaining from, or voting against, the resolution. “India’s stance on Palestine is not new, and Israel is well aware of it.”