India FM Visits Israel: A Lot of Tennis, Not a Word on Palestinians

Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna made his first trip to Israel in 11 years this week, and Israeli leaders made every effort to receive him warmly.

At the end of his meeting on Tuesday with India's Foreign Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave his guest a tennis racket signed by all members of Israel's Davis Cup tennis squad. Lieberman did not know that Krishna's excessive love of the sport embroiled him a few months ago in an embarrassing affair.

Krishna, 79, is a tennis lover, and despite his advanced age he finds his way to the court any time he has a spare moment. Among his other positions, he serves as lifetime president of the All Indian Lawn Tennis Association. Incidentally, Lieberman is also a known tennis lover. A few hours before his meeting with Krishna, he played on an isolated, guarded tennis court in Jerusalem.

In early July, the Indian television network CNN-IBN revealed that Krishna hastily "arranged" a diplomatic visit to Britain at dates close to the Wimbledon tournament. Krishna extended his stay in London three days in order to watch Wimbledon matches, at the expense of the Indian tax payer.

Nonetheless, when Krishna received the racket at the press conference as a good-will gesture from Lieberman, he didn't appear uncomfortable. On the contrary, he cracked a large smile, and looked like a happy child who has just received a vaunted present.

First visit after 11 years

Krishna visited Israel after an eleven year period during which no foreign minister from India stepped foot in Jerusalem. During the twenty year period of relations between the states, visits between top officials from India have not been routine. No Indian prime minister has ever visited Israel. The current Indian defense minister has also never visited Israel despite the dramatic evolution of military cooperation between the states.

In days preceding the visit, television networks in India reported that a fear about responses taken by Muslim voters in the state causes many government ministers to avoid visiting Israel. By abstaining from such visits, Indian leaders are not troubled by the needs to furnish explanations to their constituents, especially during periods of impasse in the peace process.

In the end, Krishna's visit won relatively significant media attention. A group of Indian journalists accompanied him during the visit, and after each meeting, reports were circulated on internet sites and Indian television networks.

Israel, for its part, made every effort to receive Krishna warmly. In view of chilled relations with the United States and the European Union, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman have a desire to improve diplomatic ties with India, China and African states.

Netanyahu devoted no less than an hour and a half to breakfast with Krishna, and even accompanied him to his car at the end of the meeting. President Shimon Peres went even further; making policy on his own, Peres indicated that Israel supports India's inclusion as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. During his meeting with Krishna, Peres described the leader of India's liberation struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, a "prophet;" and Peres called independent India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a "king."

Despite such royal treatment, Krisna did not offer any Israeli leader an invitation to visit India. For three years, Peres, Netanyahu and Lieberman have been trying to organize such a visit, but it appears that for the time being the trio will have to find alternative diplomatic destinations.

India wants Israeli natural gas

During meetings with Krishna, Netanyahu, Lieberman and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz emphasized Israel's desire to strengthen economic cooperation between the two countries. Officials in Israel hope that in coming months, a free trade agreement will be worked out between the two countries. India's foreign minister stressed that India wants to continue to learn from Israel in spheres of agriculture, high tech and science.

Lieberman told Krishna that by the end of 2012, Israel intends to open a general consulate in the high tech city, Bangalore. During the visit, Krishna and Israeli officials worked out a plan whose aim is to double trade between the states within five years, from 5 billion dollars to 10 billion dollars. In addition, Israel's universities will host 100 Indian post-doctoral researchers, and Israel will also host 20 Indian scientists who will come each year for months-long period of professional enrichment work.

Such cooperation will go beyond high tech and agriculture. India, whose population has grown rapidly, has ever increasing energy thirsts. Krishna told Netanyahu and Lieberman that his country has heard about recent natural gas discoveries off Israel's coasts. "We want to import gas from Israel," India's foreign minister told his hosts.

Agreements on the war against terror – disagreement about Iran

A large part of the visit focused on increased cooperation for the war on terror. Since the terror attacks in Bombay, in 2008, intelligence cooperation between the two states has tightened. The head of Israel's counter-terrorism bureau, Nitzan Nuriel, visits India every few months for talks regarding the war on terror.

In addition to intelligence ties, India purchases from Israel advanced military equipment of many varieties. Israel has basically replaced Russia as the second leading supplier of military hardware to India. Israel sells India air defense systems and missiles, and upgrades worn-down Russian planes and tanks.

Yet disagreement on one crucial topic separates the countries. India, which purchases 40% of its oil from Iran, feels no urgency about rupturing its connections with Teheran. Krishna even stated that India, a nuclear power in its own right, has no problem, in principle, with Iranian nuclear capability.

"We respect the right of each nation to realize its ambitions in the nuclear sphere," Krishna stated at the press conference with Lieberman. "Just as India exercised its right to develop nuclear energy to provide a response to its mounting domestic energy needs, so too does every other nation have the right to pursue the same aim, subordinate to parameters defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency."

For years, India has followed a pro-Palestinian orientation. Since India began its term at the UN Security Council, it has sponsored a number of anti-Israel resolutions, and it unremittingly denounces Israeli activity in the territories. Nary a vote is taken at UN institutions with Indian delegates raising their hands in favor of Israel's position.

Incidentally, the Palestinian topic virtually did not reach the discussion table during Krishna's visit to Israel. The topic did not come up during his discussion with Netanyahu, and Krishna and Lieberman talked about it for just a few minutes. It seems that the two sides preferred to sweep the topic to the sidelines, and focus on simpler, more productive topics.