Spotlight on trade, Chabad and Bollywood as PM heads to India

Modi and Netanyahu get on well, but the PM’s visit, the first by an Israeli premier since 2003, comes against backdrop of Delhi’s recent anti-Israel vote at the UN

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in a car with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in a car with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to take off Saturday night for a week-long trip to India that is geared toward cementing bilateral trade relations.

Marking 25 years since Jerusalem and New Delhi established formal diplomatic relations, Netanyahu will be the first Israeli prime minister to visit the world’s second-most populous country in 15 years.

The last time an Israeli prime minister came to India — a country of 1.3 billion people, 175 million of whom are Muslim — was in 2003, when Ariel Sharon arrived but abruptly cut his visit short to return to Israel to deal with a terrorist attack.

In contrast with prime ministerial visits to the US or Europe, Netanyahu’s trip, which will take him to three cities in India, will focus very little on Middle Eastern affairs such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it will deal mostly with efforts to promote trade relations.

The visit is likely to be dominated by footage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warm welcome for Netanyahu. The two men have developed a close friendship, congratulating each other on social media on various occasions and embracing each other heartily.

In July 2017, Modi became the first Indian leader to visit the Jewish state, dismissing criticism from many Muslims in India and elsewhere. A photo of Modi and Netanyahu strolling in the sand at Olga beach, in northern Israel, was shared widely.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Over the course of the visit, Israel and India will sign a series of bilateral agreements, including in the fields of aviation, renewable energy, cybersecurity, alternative medicine, and cinema.

But Netanyahu’s trip next week also takes place against the backdrop of Delhi’s recent cancellation of a major arms deal with Israel, and its vote at the United Nations against recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“I would have preferred a different vote, to be frank. But I don’t think it materially changes the tremendous flowering of relations between India and Israel,” Netanyahu said Wednesday of India’s support for a December 21 UN General Assembly resolution condemning the US administration for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier that month.

In early January, India canceled a planned $500 million anti-tank Spike missiles deal with Israel’s Rafael weapons manufacturer. But on Wednesday, India media reported that Delhi may yet revive the deal, possibly purchasing the arms through a government-to-government deal.

Officials in Jerusalem this week were hesitant to discuss its arms sales to India, though it is no secret that Israel has become a major defense supplier to the country, selling an average of $1 billion worth of military equipment each year.

“I think you’re going to see an expansion of economic and other ties, regardless of this or that deal,” Netanyahu told foreign journalists at a reception in Jerusalem.

“Over time, I hope I’ll see also a reflection of that more often in the voting of India in international forums… It doesn’t nullify the fact that with India, with other countries in Asia, with countries in Latin America and Africa, there’s a tremendous increase of relations on all fronts. It just takes longer on the international front.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a picture to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi of the two leaders’ visit to Haifa’s Olga Beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu’s entourage, which includes the largest-ever delegation of Israeli businesspeople, is scheduled to land in Delhi on Sunday. Later that day, prime minister will have an “intimate dinner” with Modi, according to the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu will also meet with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was in Israel in November.

On Monday, Netanyahu will lay a wreath at Raj Ghat, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, who was a staunch critic of Zionism but who is revered in India as “Father of the Nation.” As is customary, the prime minister will also sprinkle petals on Gandhi’s grave.

During his visit to New Delhi, President Reuven Rivlin sprinkles petals on the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi, November 15, 2016 (Mark Neiman/GPO)

Later that day, Netanyahu and Modi will hold a “private meeting” at the Hyderabad House.

He will also be welcomed by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in his residence.

On Tuesday, the prime minister’s delegation is flying to Agra, a city in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state that is home to the iconic Taj Mahal mausoleum.

Netanyahu and Modi will then open the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship annual geopolitical conference. The summit will be attended by senior statespeople from around the world, including the Russian deputy foreign minister and former US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.

From Delhi, the Israeli delegation will head to Gujarat, Modi’s home state in the country’s west.

Members of the Indian community in Israel celebrate during an event marking 25 years of good relations between Israel and India during the official visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the Convention Center in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Modi and Netanyahu are set to attend “a number of events concerning agriculture, innovation, water, and entrepreneurship” at Gujarat’s Icreate Centre, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Later that day, the prime minister and his entourage will travel south to Mumbai, where he will meet with members of the local Jewish community.

On Thursday, Netanyahu is set to conduct a “power breakfast” with senior representatives from India’s business community and attend a bilateral business seminar.

Some 130 Israeli businesspeople from the fields of agriculture, water technology, cybersecurity, defense, health and food industries are joining the prime minister’s trip. It will be headed by the president of the Association of Industrialists in Israel.

Mumbai’s Chabad House, where Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, his wife, Rivka, and four other hostages were killed by Islamist terrorists in November 2008. The couple’s young son survived the attack, thanks to his Indian nanny. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

Netanyahu will then lay a wreath at a memorial ceremony at the Taj Palace Hotel for the victims of the November 2008 attacks on the city, during which Pakistani Islamists killed 166 people and injured hundreds. From there, he will proceed to Mumbai’s Chabad House, which was one of several sites of the 2008 attack.

Moshe Holtzberg, the son of slain Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, who survived the massacre as a young child, is set to accompany the prime minister to the Chabad House. He will be joined by the family’s nanny, Sandra Samuel, who saved him at the time.

Holtzberg met with Modi during the latter’s visit to Tel Aviv last summer.

On Thursday evening, Netanyahu will attend an event dedicated to Bollywood, India’s famed movie industry. “The Prime Minister will reach out to Bollywood in an exclusive ‘Shalom Bollywood’ event,” Israel’s Embassy in India said in a press release Thursday.

“Bollywood stars have a huge influence in India, and we’re trying to get some of them and some producers to come to the event,” Gilad Cohen, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific, said this week.

An agreement on joint production in cinema will be signed, he said.

A Bollywood performance at an event celebrating 25 years of good relations between Israel and India during the official visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the Convention Center in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2017.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Some Bollywood stars were in Israel recently, and we want more to come,” Cohen said. “We also want to produce Bollywood films here. You understand the impact this could have on Israeli tourism, and of course, on Israel’s image abroad.”

On Friday, the delegation will return to Israel, making it home just in time for Shabbat.

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