Netanyahu and India’s Modi meet on arms deal, regional issues

Ahead of confab, Netanyahu says two countries on cusp of ‘new era’ of relations, hopes to revive canceled defense agreement

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) as his wife Sara Netanyahu looks on at the start of a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on January 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) as his wife Sara Netanyahu looks on at the start of a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on January 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH)

NEW DELHI, India — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with his Indian counterpart Monday, looking to deepen the countries’ diplomatic relationship and get a massive arms deal back on track.

The meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed an official state ceremony and a wreath-laying by Netanyahu at a memorial for Gandhi.

In statements to the press before the meeting, both men referred repeatedly to each other as “my friend.”

Netanyahu said Israel was on the cusp of a “new era” of relations with India.

“This visit heralds the flourishing of our friendship,” Netanyahu said addressing his comments to Modi.

“We are ushering today a new era in our relations. We’ve had diplomatic relations for 25 years but something different is happening now because of your leadership and because of our partnership. There are three things that bind our countries together: The first is that we have an ancient past. The second is that we have a vibrant present. And the third is that we are seizing together a promising future.”

Ending on a light note, the prime minister said “my friend Narendra, any time you want to do a yoga class with me it’s a big stretch but I’ll be there. Trust me.”

In his comments Modi said he hoped to develop three aspects of India-Israel relations by strengthening existing cooperation in agriculture, science and technology, and security, by exploring new forms of cooperation such as oil, gas, cyber-security and movie-making, and by “facilitating the flow of people and ideas between our geographies.”

“We are working with Israel to make it easier for our people to work and visit each other’s countries, including for longer work durations,” Modi noted. “To bring people closer on both sides, an Indian Cultural Center will soon open in Israel.”

“We have also decided to start an annual exchange of bilateral visits by 100 young people from science-related educational streams,” he added.

“Thank you very much,” Modi finished and then repeated the phrase in its Hebrew form, “Toda Rabah!”

Netanyahu and Modi’s meeting was expected to center on deepening “Israel’s standing as a strategic partner of India” and “advancing defense sales” among other topics, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said.

A source in Netanyahu’s office said the two leaders would also discuss regional security issues.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) introduces delegation members to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in the Indian capital New Delhi on January 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH)

Netanyahu is eager to revive a canceled $500 million deal between Israeli arms manufacturer Rafael and India for Spike anti-tank missiles.

“I hope that this visit can help resolve this issue because I think there is a reasonable chance we can reach an equitable solution,” Netanyahu told India Today in an interview published on Monday.

Israel exports an average of $1 billion of military equipment each year to India, but Modi wants to end India’s status as the world’s top defense importer.

Declaring that no details could be given until the end of his tour, Netanyahu added: “Our defense relationship is quite significant and it encompasses many things.

“I think the keyword is defense. We want to defend ourselves. We are not aggressive nations, but very committed to making sure that no one can commit aggression against us.”

While Netanyahu and Modi have shown off their close friendship via what some have termed the Indian prime minister’s “hugplomacy,” the countries’ ties have been hampered both by India’s continued trade with Iran and Delhi’s recent vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Netanyahu told India Today he was “disappointed” by India’s UN vote on Jerusalem, but made clear he would not let it spoil his visit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his wife Sara Netanyahu pay a floral tribute at Rajghat, the memorial for Mahatama Gandhi, in the Indian capital New Delhi on January 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA)

“Naturally I am disappointed but I think this visit is a testament to the fact that our relationship is moving forward on so many fronts,” Netanyahu said in the interview.

The prime minister and his wife Sara were welcomed at New Delhi airport by Modi, who made history in July when he became the first Indian leader to visit Israel.

Modi also stressed on Sunday that the “historic” visit would “further cement the close friendship between our nations.”

Netanyahu expects to sign new agreements in energy, aviation and cinema production. He is to visit the Taj Mahal and Modi’s home state of Gujarat as well as hold meetings with Bollywood stars in Mumbai.

But he will also make an emotional visit to a Chabad-run Jewish center targeted in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a symbolic gesture to India’s tiny Jewish community.

Netanyahu is accompanied by 11-year-old Moshe Holtzberg, whose parents were among 166 people killed by Pakistani terrorists in coordinated attacks on the city.

AFP contributed to this report.

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