India-Israel diplomatic relations will turn a new chapter with the Indian President’s historic state visit to Israel. Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian Head of the State to visit the Jewish State. The state visit is an initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 17-month old government that seeks to strengthen commercial and diplomatic ties with Israel.

However, right at the onset the Indian President’s visit was marred by a controversy, when media reports surfaced early this week that Mukherjee reportedly quoted Mahatma Gandhi during his stay to Jordan, saying, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French.” Jerusalem Post reports:

Speaking in Amman at the University of Jordan, [President Mukherjee said],“India’s traditional support to the Palestinian cause remains steadfast and unwavering while we pursue strong relations with Israel. Our bilateral relations [with Israel] are independent of our relations with Palestine.”

In recent months, New Delhi, which has pursued closer ties with Israel since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, has abstained – rather than vote against Israel – in three UN votes, leading to concern among some Palestinians that they were losing a reliable ally.

The Indian president seemed intent on dispelling that notion in his address Sunday, quoting from Mahatma Gandhi in saying, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French.”

If President Mukherjee was trying to placate the Arab public opinion with his sympathetic statements, it did not work. According to Arab media, hundreds of angry Palestinian protesters occupied the campus on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 during Mikherjee’s brief visit to Al Quds University, Ramallah.

President Mukherjee, a 79 year-old veteran politician of India’s Congress Party, took office three years ago, with support of his party’s considerable strength in Upper- and Lower Houses of Indian Parliament. Since then the left-leaning Congress Party has been virtually wiped out of India’s political scene. Congress Party historically supported Yasser Arafat’s PLO and a segment in the party still holds on to the outdated allegiances from the Cold War era.

Regardless of the Indian President’s differing opinion on the ‘Israeli-Arab conflict’, there is great support at home for Prime Minister Modi’s pro-Israel foreign policy. Besides the political support for Israel from Hindu-right within Prime Minister Modi’s own BJP-led alliance, there is wide-based support and admiration for Israel amongst the country’s youth, who see Israel as a land of start-ups and cutting-edge innovation.

During the President’s visit, both countries are set to sign important agreements aimed at improving bilateral cooperation in fields such as trade, technology, research, and education. India also seeks a framework for acquiring Israeli technological know-how in the fields of water management and energy generation.

Since India established full diplomatic ties with Israel some 23 years ago, India has turned into a reliable and valued partner of the Jewish State. The Indian President’s visit marks a new beginning in Israel-India relations and a big landmark in Israel’s successful pivot towards Asia. In the past decade, Israel has increasingly looked towards Asia and forged strong ties with Asian giants like China, India, and Japan.

(Cover image courtesy: Times of India, YouTube)