New Delhi, India – Diplomatic talks between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu are set to begin on Monday during the latter’s first official trip to India.
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The highly publicised visit comes after New Delhi voted against the United States decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the UN General Assembly last month.
But despite India’s record in abstaining or voting against Israel on the international level, Netanyahu’s visit is part of a wider move by the right-wing Indian government to strengthen existing ties.
Hundreds of people gathered in central New Delhi to protest Netanyanhu’s visit on Monday.
Brinda Karat, a spokeswoman for the leftist parties that organised the protests, condemned what she called Netanyahu’s “expansionist policies and sabotaging any possibility of an independent state of Palestine”.
“We are also against the growing military and security ties with Israel for this reason,” she told Al Jazeera.
Former Indian ambassador KC Singh said Netanyahu’s India trip is “basically a continuation of India’s calibrated relations with Israel since 1992”, when New Delhi established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
“The ruling BJP, of course, has an ideological affinity towards Israel. Prime Minister Modi doesn’t have the inhibitions of his predecessors while dealing with Israel and thus a theatrical edge has been added,” Singh told Al Jazeera.
The ruling BJP, of course, has an ideological affinity towards Israel. Prime Minister Modi doesn't have the inhibitions of his predecessors while dealing with Israel and thus a theatrical edge has been added
Among the many bilateral cooperation issues to be discussed by the two sides – defence, technology, agriculture, cyber-security, water management and trade.
“It’s all about the money,” said Akiva Eldar, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli analyst and writer for Al Monitor.
“The Israeli arms industry is thirsty and hungry for new markets, and India is a very good market for it. They do not care about what Pakistan is going to say, neither about Kashmir. It is good money and the industry is a very strong lobby in Israel,” he told Al Jazeera.
India is currently the biggest buyer of Israeli weaponry, spending an average $1bn annually on military equipment in recent years.
In July, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, weeks after the two nations signed a $2bn defence deal.
But due to Israel’s increasing isolation on the international front – propelled by its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories – Eldar says it is “very important for Netanyahu to show there are other options”.
At the emergency session of the General Assembly in December, 128 countries voted in favour of rejecting US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6. Nine countries voted against, while 35 abstained.
Commenting on India’s vote at the UN, Netanyahu told India Today: “Naturally we were disappointed, but this visit is a testimony that our relationship is moving on so many fronts forwards.
“I don’t think one vote affects a general trend you can see in many other votes and these visits,” he added.
The vote, said Mazen Shamiyeh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian foreign ministry, is pushing Netanyahu to demonstrate his “strength and achievements to his constituency on the international level”.
Strengthening relations with India, said Shamiyeh, is just one example. Over the past several years, Netanyahu has made multiple visits to the African continent in a move to improve economic ties, he said.
“Israel is moving on all fronts in Africa, Asia… it [Israel] has been seeking to cultivate relations with world nations even if they are small because they still have a vote in these organisations,” said Shamiyeh.
Prior to his departure to India, Netanyahu said on Twitter the two nations “will sign very many agreements”.
“We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power. This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests, as well as many other areas. This is a great blessing for the State of Israel,” he said.
While Israel and India established diplomatic relations in 1992, the warmer ties have become more visible since the BJP’s rise to power in 2014.
India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has won most national and local elections on a Hindu nationalist agenda, with many party members making anti-Muslim statements to polarise Hindu voters.
New Delhi-based political analyst Manoj Joshi says Netanyahu’s trip “symbolises the close ties that have developed between India and Israel after the Modi government came to power”.
Netanyahu’s visit, “will see greater state-to-state interaction and collaboration in the military-technical area”, Joshi told Al Jazeera.
While Modi’s predecessors had kept Israel at an arm’s length, the Indian prime minister has taken a different stand and has spoken of his personal affinity for Israel.
India’s December vote at the UNGA against the US, and in turn against Israel, however, is indicative of the complexity of its policy on Israel-Palestine.
BJP legislator Subramaniam Swamy has called for India to shift its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, but India has tread cautiously on the issue.
The country imports most of its oil from Arab countries, many of them hostile towards Israel. Over the past two years, India’s trade with Arab countries stood at $121bn. On the other hand, the India-Israel bilateral trade stands at less than $5bn.
“Prime Minister Modi has sought to de-hyphenate the ties, but India has been careful to align its stand on Jerusalem and the occupied territories with the world opinion,” said Joshi.
“India-Israel [relations] is more a marriage of convenience. Israel welcomes the support of a large, non-aligned country, while the present government of India is run by a party that admires Israel for a variety of reasons.”
Additional reporting by @LinahAlsaafin