IT’S PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s 66th visit abroad in three years. But it’s a historic first by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel. Less than 11 years after Modi visited Israel as Gujarat Chief Minister in October 2006, he arrived at the Ben Gurion International Airport here on Tuesday, to a grand official ceremony and warm embrace by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who described him as “my friend” at least three times during the 30-minute welcome at the airport.
Wearing a white bandhgala, in 35 degrees Celsius, Modi greeted Netanyahu with a “Shalom” as he landed at the tarmac shortly after 4 pm (local time). Netanyahu shook his hand, and told him, “What a great day, what a historic day. Welcome my friend.” The two leaders then embraced each other. Minutes later, after the ceremonial guard of honour, Netanyahu said, “Aapka swagat hai, mere dost”, as Modi smiled.
“Prime Minister Modi, we have been waiting for you for a long time, for almost 70 years, in fact. Because yours is truly a historic visit,” he said, “We receive you with open arms. We love India. We admire your history, culture, democracy, commitment to progress. We view you as kindred spirits in our common quest to provide a better future for our people and for our world.”
Netanyahu recalled how Modi told him, at their first meeting in New York in September 2014, that the “sky is the limit”. But, he said, with space cooperation now, even the sky was not the limit.
“When I met you in New York three years ago, we agreed to break down the remaining walls between India and Israel. We shook each other’s hands and agreed to forge a historic partnership for partners,” said Netanyahu.
Responding to the welcome, Modi said: “It is my singular honour to be the first ever Indian Prime Minister to undertake this groundbreaking visit to Israel… My visit celebrates the strength of centuries-old links between our societies. Based on the bonds, our partnership has maintained a strong and sustained upswing since the establishment of full diplomatic relations 25 years ago.
“The people of Israel have built a nation on democratic principles. They have nurtured it with hard work, grit and spirit of innovation. You have marched on, regardless of adversity, and converted challenges into opportunity. India applauds your achievements,” he said.
Modi then recalled that 41 years ago, on July 4, in Operation Entebbe, “Bibi” lost his elder brother “Yoni”, who died while saving the lives of Israeli hostages. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu was an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) officer who commanded the elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, during Operation Entebbe — an operation to rescue hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976. The mission was successful, with 102 of the 106 hostages rescued, but “Yoni” was killed in action — the only IDF fatality during the operation.
After their brief speeches, Netanyahu introduced top Cabinet ministers who were at the airport to receive Modi.
From the airport, Modi headed to Danziger “Dan” Flower Farm, at Mishmar Hashiva, accompanied by Netanyahu and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. He also visited Yad Vashem, the Hall of Names, attended the memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance, toured the Children’s Memorial and signed the Yad Vashem Guest Book.
Later in the evening, at the Prime Minister’s residence, before they went for a small, private dinner, Modi brought up the issue of terrorism. “Yad Vashem is a reminder of the unspeakable evil inflicted generations ago. It is also a tribute to your unbreakable spirit… to rise above the depths of tragedy, overcome hatred and forge ahead to build a vibrant democratic nation. Yad Vashem tells us that those who believe in humanity and civilised values must come together and defend it at all costs. As such, we must resolutely oppose the evils of terrorism, radicalism and violence that plague our time,” he said.
Earlier too, at the airport, Modi said, “Alongside building a partnership for shared economic prosperity, we are also cooperating to secure our societies against common threats such as terrorism.”
Netanyahu also said the two countries face the “common challenge of terrorism”, and both must stand together to fight it. “We both want things to change overnight, and we are both tireless reformers,” he said.
The leaders hugged each other at least four times through the day, and addressed each other as “my friend” several times, with Netanyahu even slipping to an informal “my friend Narendra” in his remarks before they went for dinner.
While India and Israel have deep ties in defence and security, the two sides are keen to project a broader relationship during Modi’s three-day visit — they are going to showcase their “strategic partnership” in agriculture and water, innovation and science and technology, and space.
Indian ambassador to Israel, Pavan Kapoor, told The Indian Express that the catch phrase for the visit is “defence to development”. The two leaders will hold bilateral talks at the historic King David Hotel on Wednesday.
Rebecca Zeffert, Founder and Executive Director of Israel-Asia Centre in Jerusalem, told The Indian Express: “Israel has been eagerly awaiting the visit by Prime Minister Modi for the past two years. So his visit to Israel in the year marking 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries is a historic one, and will serve to further ramp up and upgrade the already strong ties that exist between the two countries.”
She said an example of this is the elaborate roadmap of commitments prepared by the two countries to strengthen ties on multiple fronts — including economy, tourism, R&D, innovation, education and culture. Last week, the Israeli cabinet approved a 280 million shekel plan — higher than any previous sums allocated in equivalent programmes (including China) — to support bilateral initiatives as part of this roadmap. Numerous ministries played a role in penning this programme, which includes increasing Israeli exports to India, furthering cooperation in water and agriculture, academic exchange programmes, boosting tourism and investment between the two countries.
“One of the agreements we are expecting the two countries to sign during the visit includes a joint innovation fund of $40 million. Israel also plans to encourage more Indian tourists to visit Israel through a plan to film a Bollywood movie in Israel,” she said.
“A great deal of emphasis will be placed during this visit on collaboration in agricultural and water technology, and specifically on application of Israeli water technologies to meet some of India’s most pressing water challenges — such as initiatives to clean up the Ganga river,” she said.
Former advisor to Netanyahu, Caroline Glick, who is a senior journalist with Jerusalem Post, told The Indian Express, “We are very excited that Prime Minister Modi is coming this week. His election was a turning point in India-Israel relations… We understand that Modi is a true friend of Israel and understands that our economies are compatible. Israel and India are uniquely situated to work together to advance common aims in everything, from clear water technologies to drone technologies, from agriculture to aerospace, there is effectively no area of human endeavor where our economic interests and comparative advantages are not complementary.”
Zeffert said that India and Israel share many commonalities. “Both people have long histories spanning thousands of years, and deeply entrenched traditions, but emerged as modern states just a year apart from each other. They are both democracies in rough neighbourhoods, and have had to deal with seemingly insurmountable challenges. However, despite these commonalities, there is still much work to be done to address some of the challenges that often exist in doing business together and building tangible partnerships. While this visit will focus on heightening collaboration in numerous areas — including water and agricultural technology, trade, innovation and R&D, tourism, culture and education — there is still a long way to go in bringing these two countries closer together, familiarising current and future leaders across different sectors with each others’ cultures, customs, values, challenges and needs, and bridging these gaps in people-to-people understanding.”
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