Indian president condemns terrorism during historic Israel visit
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Indian president condemns terrorism during historic Israel visit

Pranab Mukherjee steers clear of discussing violence while addressing Knesset, praises deepening ties between two countries

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during the first official visit to Israel of an Indian leader, October 14, 2015 (Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO)
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during the first official visit to Israel of an Indian leader, October 14, 2015 (Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO)

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said he is “disturbed” by a recent flurry of violence in Israel on Wednesday, as he met with Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin during a historic three-day trip to Israel.

India attaches high importance to its relationship with Israel; we are disturbed by the recent violence,” Mukherjee told Rivlin at an official reception. “India condemns all forms of terrorism, and we have always advocated for a peaceful solution to all disputes.”

Rivlin praised ties between Israel and India, saying he looked forward “to exploring new avenues of corporation and partnership.”

“Indians and Israelis are working together to safeguard the environment, to develop academic study, and we are working to keep our peoples safe in the face of terrorism and fundamentalism,” he said.

The trip comes amid ongoing efforts to boost ties between the India and Israel. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office last year, has made developing cooperation with Israel a focus for his government’s diplomatic policies.

Following the reception Mukherjee addressed the Knesset at a special plenary session in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Rivlin.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee inspect Israel IDF troops with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during the first official visit to Israel of an Indian leader, October 14, 2015 (Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO)
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee inspects Israel IDF troops with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during the first official visit to Israel of an Indian leader, October 14, 2015 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

At the Knesset, often the site of heckling and interjections from Israeli lawmakers, including during the visits of foreign dignitaries, Mukherjee chose not to address the security situation, only hinting at India’s official support of a two state solution.

“India thinks there is no better way to solve problems than through negotiations and dialogue,” he told legislators.

Instead he focused on historic ties between Israel and India and potential for future collaboration.

“More than 2,000 years ago Jews had arrived in India. The Jewish people have always been an integral part of India`s composite society,” said Mukherjee, who thanked Israel for “rushing critical defense supplies in 1999.”

Since 1999 India has become the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment.

In October 2014, India agreed to a $525 million deal to buy Israel’s guided Spike missiles, which were widely used by the IDF during the previous summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

Israeli arms manufacturers have reportedly sold approximately $8 billion worth of weapons systems to India, representing roughly 15 percent of total sales, as of 2012.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee addresses the Knesset during the first official visit to Israel of an Indian leader, October 14, 2015 (Photo courtesy of Knesset Spokesman)
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee addresses the Knesset during the first official visit to Israel of an Indian leader, October 14, 2015 (Photo courtesy of Knesset Spokesman)

The Indian leader told the Knesset “our countries should collaborate in the field of agriculture. Israeli technological advances can enhance India`s industrial production. Collaboration can create more jobs both in India and Israel.”

Speaking after Mukherjee, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also focused on strengthening ties between the two countries.

Netanyahu said in his speech that ”India is a huge country, and we are a small country, but together we are doing great things in science, technology, commerce, cyber, water and security, and we are working together to realize the potential of innovation in order to bring welfare and prosperity to our countries.”

Like Rivlin before him, Netanyahu said Israel and India also share security challenges.

“In the face of all the challenges of fanaticism and terror that have befallen both countries, we have succeeded in preserving democracy for seven decades. Both of our countries are attacked by global terror elements,” he said.

“Alongside our aspirations to live in coexistence and peace, we must make it clear to our enemies that terror will not defeat us,” Netanyahu continued.

“In addition to demolishing terrorists’ homes, we will not allow the rebuilding of homes at the same location. We will seize property, revoke permanent residency statuses and set up roadblocks wherever they are required. We will act against all those inciters who spread blood libels to set in motion actions against us.”

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee shakes the had of Israeli Prime Mininster Benkamin Netanyahu from the podium of the Knesset , October 14, 2015 (Photo courtesy of Knesset Spokesman)
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee shakes the hand of Israeli Prime Mininster Benjamin Netanyahu from the podium of the Knesset, October 14, 2015 (Courtesy Knesset Spokesman)

Speaking at the University of Jordan in Amman — where he arrived Saturday on route to Israel — Mukherjee said that closer ties with Israel did not change India’s position on the Palestinian issue.

“India’s traditional support to the Palestinian cause remains steadfast and unwavering while we pursue strong relations with Israel,” he stated.

Quoting a speech by India’s founder Mahatma Gandhi, Mukherjee said, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French.”

The quote is taken from a speech given by Ghandi in 1938 in which he presents his opposition to Zionism saying it would be “a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.”

On Tuesday Mukherjee laid a wreath at the grave of former Palestinian Authority chair Yasser Arafat before meeting with current president Mahmoud Abbas.

He was also set to visit the contentious Al Quds University in Jerusalem – the site of a number of violent protests in recent weeks – to receive an honorary doctorate from the institution.

On Thursday Mukherjee will receive an honorary doctorate from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Earlier this year, an Israeli official announced that Mukherjee would visit Israel instead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was previously slated to come.

The India-based Economic Times reported in July that the switch was made after a “recalibration of official thinking.” The report said the move was aimed to shy away from what could be perceived as an overly pro-Israel diplomatic outlook.

However, the Israeli official said the switch was not to be construed as a slight against the Jewish state and that a presidential visit was considered better for developing bilateral ties than one by a prime minister.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on December 11, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/Findlay KEMBER)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on December 11, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/Findlay KEMBER)

In July, India abstained in a vote on a UN Human Rights Council resolution that backed a report critical of Israel’s behavior during last summer’s war in Gaza.

The Palestinians were “shocked” at India’s move, said the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaija. “The Palestinian people and leaders were very happy with the UN resolution, but the voting of India has broken our happiness,” he said.

Although New Delhi emphasized that its vote did not signify any change in its policy of support for the Palestinian cause, India’s abstention was celebrated in Israel as a remarkable diplomatic achievement.

India has sought closer defense ties with Israel in recent years, but has also looked to keep from offending hundreds of millions of Muslims who call India home.

Tamar Pileggi and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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