President, not PM, to be first Indian leader in Israel

Official says Prime Minister Modi still coming, presidential visit by Pranab Mukherjee not a downgrade

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and President Pranab Mukherjee seen surrounded by members of staff in New Delhi, July 28, 2015. (AFP/PRAKASH SINGH)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and President Pranab Mukherjee seen surrounded by members of staff in New Delhi, July 28, 2015. (AFP/PRAKASH SINGH)

An official on Tuesday confirmed reports that the first top Indian statesman to visit Israel will be that country’s president, and not the prime minister as previously announced, but said the switch was not to be construed as a slight against the Jewish state.

Earlier this month, the India-based Economic Times reported on a “recalibration of official thinking” that would see President Pranab Mukherjee pushed ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in line to travel to Israel. The report said the move was aimed to shy away from what could be perceived as an overly pro-Israel diplomatic outlook.

Mukherjee will also make a parallel official visit to the West Bank to demonstrate a balanced attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In May, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that Modi, who is known to enjoy a good personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was to visit Israel some time in 2016.

A senior official familiar with the issue admitted Tuesday that Modi’s trip will likely be delayed due to Mukherjee’s earlier visit, but said the development was not a compromise, as in foreign relations a presidential visit is considered better for developing bilateral ties than one by a prime minister.

In addition, the official noted that Indian diplomats had specifically requested that Modi meet with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting scheduled for September. The two men held a similar meeting at last year’s gathering in New York.

With India seeking to improve its relations with countries in the region, Modi is also set to visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the near future. India is also looking to develop ties with Iran in the wake of a recent nuclear deal signed with world powers that will see the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the Economic Times reported.

In early 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 Gaza war.

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.

Modi, who was elected prime minister last year, has made developing cooperation with Israel a focus for his government’s diplomatic policies.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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