A Hug and a Cover-up

The Touchy Issue Left Off the Agenda of India PM Modi's Visit to Israel

Netanyahu didn't exaggerate when he called Indian PM Modi's visit 'historic.' Wishing to avoid discord over India's ties to Iran, visit focuses on civilian issues ■ Analysis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (R) during an official ceremoney at Ben-Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on July 4, 2017
JACK GUEZ/AFP

As soon as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi disembarked from his giant 747 aircraft at Ben-Gurion Airport he gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu one of his famous warm embraces. Netanyahu was in a very good mood and even appeared excited. “This is a historic day,” he told his Indian counterpart, shaking his hand for a long time.

As opposed to many instances in the past, this time Netanyahu wasn’t exaggerating. This is the first visit of an Indian prime minister to Israel. The atmosphere and the political context of the visit are also historic. Modi severed the permanent connection that India had made between promoting and openly displaying its ties with Israel and its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He even elegantly skipped a visit to Ramallah. Netanyahu would want this trend to manifest itself in India’s voting in the United Nations – it’s too soon to tell whether it will.

>> India's Narendra Modi Visits Israel: Live Updates >>

The visit’s itinerary was also unusual. The subjects to be discussed are almost entirely civilian – a visit to a flower farm and discussions on cooperation in agriculture, talks on joint space projects and meetings with dozens of directors of companies in the private sector to encourage business. This is refreshing normalcy around here.

Read more on Israel-India relations: Does Trump's instability mean Israel should pivot toward India? ■ Wake up, Israel! Modi's visit will make history ■ Sisters in Arms: The Burgeoning Defense Trade Between Israel and India

A diplomatic-security issue that is expected to come up is cooperation in the fight against terror. Both Netanyahu and Modi mentioned this in their public statements at the beginning of their dinner together. When Modi talks about terror, he means Jihadist groups identified with Al-Qaida and the Taliban which, encouraged and backed by Pakistani intelligence, commit terror attacks against India. The Indians are glad to accept any Israeli assistance in this area – both on the practical level and in terms of Israeli diplomatic support.

But there is terror that the Indians are not anxious to discuss. Five and a half years ago, Iranian agents carried out an attack against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi – within spitting distance of Modi’s office. The wife of the Defense Ministry attaché in India, Tali Yehoshua-Koren, was wounded in the attack and Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon told the mass-circulation Hindustan Times last February in an interview that Israel would not rest until the last of the assailants stood trial. But the fact is that the Indians have not yet tried even the first of those involved.

In the months after the attack the Indians investigated and even arrested and indicted an Indian citizen on suspicion of assisting the assailants. But a short time later the Indians let the investigation disintegrate. The suspect was released and no verdict has been issued to this day. Moreover, although the Indians know full well that Iran was behind the attack, they still refuse to admit it officially and point a finger at the regime in Tehran.

Ahead of Modi’s visit the Foreign Ministry treated questions about India's conduct in the attack like radioactive waste. “The government of India is not covering up the investigation of the attack,” Ambassador Carmon said when asked about it in a press briefing at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Monday. “We continue to raise the matter,” he added.

But off the record, senior officials in the defense establishment and the Foreign Ministry concede that the issue has been covered up and made to go away by the Indians, who acted anemically toward the Iranians due to a long list of other interests that were more important. The Indians, who maintain close ties to Tehran in the areas of trade and energy, politely asked the Iranians not to commit any more attacks on Israeli targets in India, and swept the matter under the rug. 

For the past eight years, the Iranian issue has been at the top of Netanyahu’s agenda in almost every meeting with foreign leaders, especially key powers. Since the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and more so in the past year, the prime minister has spoken repeatedly about Iranian involvement in terror in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Netanyahu and his officials in the Foreign Ministry protest every trip of a European foreign minister or economic minister to Iran.

But ahead of the Modi visit, Foreign Ministry officials made every attempt to take the Iranian issue off the public and media agenda. Even if the issue comes up in the talks to be held in closed rooms during the visit, it is not expected to dominate the conversation. The reason is the desire to avoid any dispute during Modi’s visit, especially a public one, as well as to promote economic interests with India. One can understand the Indian cover-up; less understandable is why Israel is lending it a hand.