February 9, 2018 / 9:53 AM / 3 months ago

Modi heads to Palestinian territories to balance warming ties with Israel

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - After a public embrace of Israel as a strategic partner, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is heading to the Palestinian territories and the Gulf countries on Friday to bolster long-standing political and economic ties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to his supporters as he arrives to address them during an election campaign meeting ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections, in Ahmedabad, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Amit Dave/Files

India was one of the earliest champions of the Palestinian cause but in recent years turned to Israel for high-tech military equipment and anti-terrorism cooperation.

Under Modi, whose nationalist party sees Israel as a natural ally against Islamist extremism, ties have flourished. Modi made the first trip to Israel by an Indian prime minister last year followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India last month.

But Indian officials said India continued to support the Palestinian cause and that Modi’s visit is aimed at helping build up the Palestinians’ capacity in the health, information technology and education areas.

“We have de-hyphenated our relations with Palestine and Israel and now we see them both as mutually independent and exclusive and as part of this policy the prime minister is undertaking this visit,” B. Bala Bhaskar, a joint secretary in the Indian foreign ministry, said.

The two sides are building a India-Palestinian technology park in Ramallah, the Palestinians’ seat of government, which will develop IT expertise and generate employment.

Modi is due to arrive in Jordan later on Friday and travel to Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Saturday. During his visit to Israel last year, he did not travel to the Palestinian headquarters as is usually the case with visiting leaders.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu walk during their visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Amit Dave/Files

“Looking forward to my discussions with President Mahmoud Abbas and reaffirming our support for the Palestinian people and the development of Palestine,” Modi said in a Twitter post.

India was among more than 120 countries to vote in favour of a resolution in December calling for the United States to drop its recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

But the scale of India’s security and commercial ties with Israel dwarfs the engagement with the Palestinians. Israel is among India’s top three arms suppliers, doing business worth millions of dollars each year.

Modi and Netanyahu are now pushing for cooperation in agriculture, energy and cybersecurity in addition to defence.

Modi will also travel to the United Arab Emirates, from where India gets half of its oil, and to Oman, with which India’s navy has built close security ties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi raise their arms upon Netanyahu’s arrival at Air Force Station Palam in New Delhi, January 14, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

The Gulf is home to nine million Indians who remit $35 billion home each year, sustaining millions of families. The UAE committed an investment of $75 billion in India when Modi visited in 2015 and the two sides will be looking to advance that goal, the foreign ministry said.

Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Nick Macfie

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