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Netanyahu again cancels India trip ahead of Israel election

An election billboard by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, showing Netanyahu with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Tel Aviv on 28 July 2019 [Amichai Stein/Twitter]
An election billboard by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, showing Netanyahu with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Tel Aviv on 28 July 2019 [Amichai Stein/Twitter]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cancelled his trip to India, which was slated to take place next week ahead of Israel's upcoming general election on 17 September.

Netanyahu had been due to visit his "close friend" and political ally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the Indian capital New Delhi for a one-day trip on Monday. The pair were slated to discuss bilateral ties including trade and defence industry deals.

The trip was also seen as part of Netanyahu's pre-election strategy, playing on the idea that he has "got things done" during his tenure as prime minister and is the only candidate able to represent Israel on the world stage. To this end, campaign posters featuring Modi and Netanyahu have appeared around Israel, highlighting the close relationship between the two leaders.

Spokesperson for Netanyahu, Shir Cohen, said in a statement yesterday that Netanyahu had called Modi to explain the situation, with the two agreeing that, "due to scheduling constraints, the prime minister's visit would take place after the elections".

The cancellation of the trip at such short notice has, however, prompted speculation that Netanyahu could be planning an alternative visit in the remaining two weeks before the election, or alternatively that a world leader could be planning a last-minute visit to Israel.

Some of the options floated were visits to Israel by US President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin, or trips to Washington DC or Moscow by Netanyahu.

The Prime Minister's Office has, however, refused to comment on this speculation.

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Much of this speculation has been fuelled by the revelation earlier this week that Netanyahu and President Trump have been discussing the possibility of a "dramatic diplomatic gesture" ahead of this month's Israeli election.

According to a report by Haaretz, recent weeks have seen "intensive talks" between Netanyahu's advisers and people close to Trump "over a potential statement by the American president, in which he could commit to protecting Israel in the future from any existential threat".

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Some of the options under discussion included signing a "defence pact" between Israel and the US, or the promise of military assistance should Israel come under attack.

Rumours that President Trump could give the go-ahead for Israel's annexation of Area C of the occupied West Bank – where the majority of its illegal settlements are located – have also been rife. Netanyahu has been pushing his US ally for such an endorsement for months, hoping that this "gift" will allow him to fulfil is pre-April election promise and secure his re-election this month.

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Whether Netanyahu's move will negatively impact Israel's burgeoning relations with India is as yet unclear. Though Israeli media has cited Indian sources as saying the cancellation "will not cast a cloud over the strong relations between the two countries," that this is the second time Netanyahu has cancelled an engagement with Modi will not be lost on onlookers.

Netanyahu was slated to visit India in February, but again cancelled the trip just days before it was due to take place. The prime minister visited India in 2018, but has not travelled to the South Asian country since then.

Relations between India and Israel have generally focused on weapons, with Israeli arms company Rafael in July signing a $100 million deal with the Indian army and air force. The deal was slated to see 1,000 Barak 8/MRSAM missile kits – a land-based configuration of long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) – manufactured for the Indian army and air force under the "Make in India" initiative, which Modi launched in 2014.

India is currently Israel's biggest arms market, thought to be worth about $1 billion annually. A report from the Sweden-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released earlier this year found that India accounts for 46 per cent of Israel's arms export trade, with Azerbaijan and Vietnam the second and third biggest clients respectively.

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