Netanyahu calls off planned trip to India, less than a week before takeoff

PM says ‘scheduling constraints’ caused election cycle’s second short-notice cancellation, fueling rumors he’s preparing for a different high-profile visit

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a joint press conference at the president's house in New Delhi, India, January 15, 2018.  (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a joint press conference at the president's house in New Delhi, India, January 15, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Less than a week before he was set to take off, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday canceled a planned trip to India, setting off speculation that he’s eyeing a different high-profile visit before this month’s election.

The prime minister had been confirmed to fly to New Delhi for a one-day trip on September 9, during which he was scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and possibly sign a number of bilateral agreements. According to reports in the local press, business deals, especially in the defense industry, were on the table as well.

But on Tuesday morning, Netanyahu called Modi to tell him that he is currently unable to come to India.

“The two agreed, due to scheduling constraints, that the prime minister’s visit would take place after the elections,” Netanyahu’s spokesperson Shir Cohen said in a short statement sent to reporters.

The prime minister’s visit to Delhi ahead of the September 17 poll was widely seen as a boost to his Likud party’s election strategy, which has been stressing his close ties with world leaders. Modi is one of three foreign statesmen — together with US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin — who appear on huge campaign posters outside the Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in Tel Aviv showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)

Netanyahu and Modi are close personal friends who often shower each other with public praise and good wishes. Netanyahu placed a framed photograph of himself with the Indian premier strolling barefoot on an Israeli beach in his Jerusalem office, where all visiting leaders can see it.

The cancellation of the visit on such short notice spurred rumors that Netanyahu is planning for another high-profile event to take place at that time, possibly a visit to Israel by either Putin or Trump. It was also speculated that the prime minister himself could travel to Moscow or Washington for a pre-election trip.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday refused to comment.

On Monday, Hebrew media reported that Jerusalem has been discussing with the White House a grand presidential gesture on the US’s commitment to Israeli security in the coming days, including a possible statement on the two allies’ intent to enter into a defense pact.

The two leaders are hoping to use the move to boost the Israeli premier’s electoral prospects ahead of the September 17 vote, Haaretz reported.

The most likely action, the newspaper said, was a vow by Trump — with few practical implications — that the US will defend the Jewish state from any potential existential threat.

Last month, during a two-day trip to Ukraine, Netanyahu confirmed his India trip, but said that he currently had no other travel plans before the elections. He stressed, however, that this could change.

India is not the first country Netanyahu snubbed during the current election cycle. Several weeks ago, he canceled a planned trip to Japan on short notice.

According to Haaretz, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had agreed to host the Israeli leader on July 29, but 10 days before his arrival in Tokyo he suddenly scrapped the visit.

“Just like that, as though nothing had happened. Tokyo was in shock. Shock, accompanied by anger and humiliation,” the paper’s veteran political analyst Yossi Verter wrote about Japan’s reaction.

An Israeli source who participated in the planning of Netanyahu’s trip later told the paper that it had not been canceled but merely postponed.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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