NEW DELHI: Narendra Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to Israel, a visit that will finally bring one of the world’s close relationships out of the closet. While dates for the trip are yet to be fixed, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj announced she would visit Israel later this year, along with Palestine and Jordan.
Presenting an annual wrap-up of her ministry’s work for the first year, Swaraj also clarified that there was no decision on a cricket series with Pakistan after all and that the Modi government’s diplomacy had resulted in 39% growth in FDI pouring into India in the past year.
Modi’s visit to Israel is almost a foregone conclusion. There aren’t many world leaders he refers to as “my friend”, which is a regular prefix he uses for Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu was also the only bilateral meeting he had on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last year.
India recognized Israel in 1950 but soon after voted against it in the UN. Diplomatic ties were established by Narasimha Rao’s government in 1991, though there had been some unofficial contacts earlier, as in the famous visits by Moshe Dayan.
Jyoti Basu, the communist chief minister of West Bengal, broke ground when he visited Israel. During the Vajpayee years, Jaswant Singh and L K Advani had both visited Israel, but Vajpayee couldn’t.
Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli PM to visit India in 2003, but there have been no high-level visits from India since. Former Israeli president Shimon Peres visited India, but in the past decade, while the real relationship progressed quickly, it was only former foreign minister S M Krishna who travelled to Jerusalem.
Swaraj, meanwhile, fielded questions on a perceived “flip-flop” in her government’s policy on Pakistan, whether China and India could work on “out-of-the-box” solutions to the boundary dispute, and if she maintained a low profile because Modi had put a gag order on her.
India, she said, had moved away from a “goody-goody” formalized dialogue with China. Acknowledging the difficulties in resolving outstanding issues, she said the PM had told the Chinese leadership they should “reconsider” their positions on some old issues. India conveyed its opposition to the Pak-China economic corridor in New Delhi and Beijing, with even the PM clarifying India’s objections to it. The Chinese, she said, have terrorism threats as well, emanating from the same region that threatens India.
Refuting allegations that Modi was travelling abroad too much and neglecting his domestic duties, Sushma laid out the PM’s forthcoming travel plans. Apart from Israel, he will also visit Palestine. “As far as my visit is concerned, it will take place this year. I will visit Israel, Palestine and Jordan. As far as the prime minister’s visit is concerned, no dates have been finalized. It will take place as per mutually convenient dates,” she said.
In October, Modi will travel to Turkey for the G20 summit, and given his penchant for clubbing several countries in the same visit, it’s not inconceivable that he could put Israel, Palestine, maybe even Egypt on his itinerary. In July, he will also be the first Indian PM to travel to all the five Central Asian states on his way to Ufa (Russia) for the BRICS summit. Since Malaysia will be hosting the Asean and East Asia Summits this year, expect Modi to travel to Kuala Lumpur, perhaps adding other countries in the region to his travel plans. Swaraj did not mention it but Modi is also scheduled to pay a visit to the UK later this year.
Swaraj herself will be in Iran for a NAM meeting. Foreign secretary S Jaishankar will be travelling to Iran next week, after the Bangladesh summit, as India and Iran pick up the threads of a vibrant relationship which has been fraying at the edges in recent years.
On Pakistan, Swaraj denied any “flip-flops” but said there was no decision on holding an India-Pakistan cricket series. “We decided on three things—peaceful resolution of disputes, bilateral talks (no third party) and no violence. It’s a clear policy,” she said. There will not be a return to the composite dialogue anytime soon, clearly.
“No decision has been taken. Where has this information come that this (Indo-Pak cricket series) has been decided and that I was not consulted. No decision has been taken,” Swaraj said when asked about reports that India will be playing a bilateral series with Pakistan. But she kept all rancour or disappointment with Pakistan out of her remarks, emphasizing instead on Pakistan’s helping hand to India. “Despite strained relations, we have extended a helping hand to each other during difficult periods,” she said.
Asserting that the Modi government has “achieved a lot”, Swaraj said the PM’s “proactive” diplomacy had resulted in an increase of 39% in FDI into the country ($28.8 billion) in the past year.
On Afghanistan, she made it clear that India would hold Ashraf Ghani to his promise that he would not allow Afghan territory to be used against it. India, she said, had fulfilled a wish of former president Hamid Karzai by sending a huge Afghan flag and pole to be erected in Kabul (like the one in Connaught Place in New Delhi).
Has Modi placed a gag order on her? “As far as low profile is concerned, this is what goes with my profile. Prime Minister has not imposed any restrictions on anyone so why will he put it on me? But why you feel that I am low profile is because I have become external affairs minister from the position of leader of opposition. In LoP’s profile, I had to speak every day. But as foreign minister, my opinion is that I should not speak on domestic issues. Because when the foreign minister speaks, it is not his/her personal opinion or the party’s but the country’s opinion. Therefore, a foreign minister should not speak… So I decided that the profile I have got, I should not speak and I follow that,” she said.