Netanyahu meets with Indian PM Modi, calls to bolster ties

New York sit-down first between Israeli, Indian leaders in a decade; nuclear Iran, Islamic terror also discussed

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Narendra Modi in New York City on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Narendra Modi in New York City on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New York late Sunday to discuss nuclear developments in Iran and expanding bilateral ties between Jerusalem and Delhi.

The meeting was the first between the Israeli and Indian premiers in over a decade, according to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.

Both men are in New York for the United Nations General Assembly gathering of world leaders.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu raised the issue of the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as the global threat posed by Islamic terrorism,” the PMO said in a statement released Monday Israel time.

While Israel has lobbied for a sanctions regime to isolate Tehran and force it to curb its nuclear program, India has remained one of the largest importers of Iranian oil.

India cut crude imports from Iran by 40 percent in 2013 under Western pressure, but boosted trade again once an interim deal easing financial restrictions was signed between Tehran and six Western powers in November 2013, according to a Reuters report.

Bilateral trade between Iran and India stood at $15.25 billion in 2013-14, according to the Mumbai based Economic Times.

But India is also one of Israel’s most important trade partners in the defense sector. A report in August put Israel as India’s fourth-largest arms supplier, with Delhi saying it spent $533 million over the last three years, according to Israeli news site Globes.

Netanyahu also raised Indian-Israeli cooperation on cyber-defense, high-tech, water and agricultural technologies.

“We are very excited by the prospects of greater and greater ties with India. We think the sky’s the limit,” Netanyahu said during a press appearance ahead of the meeting.

“This is an opportunity for Israel and India to expand further our relationship,” Netanyahu said. “We are two old peoples, some of the oldest in the nations on earth but we are also two democracies; we’re proud of our rich traditions but we’re also eager to seize the future. I believe that if we work together we can do so with benefits to both our peoples.”

Netanyahu said he was “delighted” to meet Modi and invited him to visit Israel, in what would be a first for an Indian prime minister.

New Delhi only established relations with Israel in 1992, a delay often attributed by analysts to potential concerns within India’s Muslim minority and the developing nation’s need to preserve relations with wealthy Arab states.

But India quickly developed relations with Israel during the last government of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which emphasizes Hindu identity. In 2003, Ariel Sharon paid the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to New Delhi.

The left-leaning Congress party that took power in 2004 took a greater distance from Israel, despite meetings at the ministerial level. Nonetheless, two-way trade has soared from $200 million in 1992 to $6 billion, according to New Delhi’s figures, and India has been an alluring market for Israel’s defense industry.

Israel was one of the few countries visited by Modi before his election as prime minister.

Despite his hawkish reputation, Modi surprised observers by meeting widely with foreign leaders since his election, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But Indian officials said that Modi had no plans to meet in New York with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Modi was leader of the state of Gujarat when anti-Muslim riots killed more than 1,000 people in 2002. He was never charged and denies wrongdoing, but the episode led the United States to deny him a visa in 2005.

He swept to power in May, after marketing himself as the one leader capable of waking the nation of 1.2 billion from its economic slumber.

After the election, Netanyahu made a congratulatory phone call to Modi to express his admiration for Indian democracy and the two leaders agreed to deepen cooperation between the two countries, according to a Reuters report.

Modi “has long courted political and trade links with the state of Israel,” according to the International Business Times.

Modi had previously visited Israel as chief minister of Gurajat province, a position he held since 2001. During the trip, he suggested that, “as the possible next prime minister, he could make history by journeying to the Jewish state,” the report read.

“I agree with you that India-Israel relations are [historic],” Modi said through a translator Sunday. “I met this morning with the people from the Jewish community, American Jewish Committee, and they all appreciated that there is a deep recognition in Israel that India is the only country where anti-Semitism has never been allowed to come up, where Jews have never suffered and lived as an integral part of our society.

Mumbai’s Chabad center, which was targeted along with other sites in the city’s terror attacks of 2008, recently reopened. Since the attack, India’s handful of Jewish institutions are guarded by armed troops.

Though Mumbai’s Jewish community only numbers a few thousand, the city was once home to a bustling Jewish presence, anchored by the Baghdadi community, which mostly left following the founding of Israel in 1948.

“There was a time in the city of Mumbai that Hebrew was officially taught in the university and even one of the mayors of Mumbai city was from a Jewish family,” Modi noted to Netanyahu, referring to Elijah Moses Raspurkar, who steered the city in the 1930s.

Netanyahu landed in New York early Monday, and is slated to speak before the General Assembly Monday evening Israel time.

AP and David Shamah contributed to this report.

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