Can anyone do a Modi on Modi? Yes, his name is Benjamin Netanyahu and he is the prime minister of Israel.
“Welcome to Israel…Aapka Swagat Hai Mere Dost. We have been waiting for you for a long time. We love India,” said @netanyahu to @narendramodi as he landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on Tuesday evening.
With only 938,000 followers on Twitter – the PM has 31.2 million – Bibi Netanyahu has taken to Modi’s visit on social media with gusto and extraordinary passion. It’s almost as if the twin leaders were separated at birth and Twitter has brought them back together.
Tonight in Israel, the retweet button has become a weapon of mass enthusiasm. In Hindi and Hebrew @netanyahu posted a warm and effusive welcome, including a video of Modi’s arrival on his Facebook page, followed by the ultimate accolade, a giant bear hug. (It’s not clear who hugged whom, but the friendly feelings seem to be mutual.)
@IsraelMFA, the Foreign Office’s Twitter handle, underlined its prime minister’s excitement, exhorting tweeple to watch LIVE the official welcoming ceremony. It went on to add that India is a vast country and Israel a tiny one, but “together we are going to do very big things.”
Meanwhile @Israel, the country’s national Twitter account, reported from the Danziger agricultural farm that a fast-growing chrysanthemum flower will henceforth be called ‘Modi.’
What’s going on? The floodgates of @narendramodi’s enthusiasm in visiting a country he has openly admired for years seem to have burst. Certainly, the PM deserves credit for stripping away the hypocrisy all previous governments, both Congress as well as BJP, have maintained in breaking bread with Israel. It was okay to romance behind the purdah, but certainly not okay to kiss in public.
At long last, Modi’s embrace seems to be genuinely reciprocated. Netanyahu clasped him to his chest at the airport, then accompanied him to the Danziger farm en route to Jerusalem. When he welcomed him to his home in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s wife shook his hand fiercely and told Modi that my husband has told me everything about you, that you are Israel’s friend.
After their brief statements to the press, where the Israeli PM flattered Modi by referring to two ‘yogaasanas’ – when Modi looks left he sees Israel, and when I look right I see India, both sister democracies – Netanyahu hugged Modi again.
Bibi is expected to stay by the PM’s side these next three days. Even the cynical Israeli press seems a little taken aback at what’s going on.
Modi is certainly responding with alacrity. He visited Yad Vashem, the museum that is a memorial to the Holocaust. And he went to the memorial of Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian journalist considered to be the founder of modern Zionism – when Netanyahu suggested that he do. It was the equivalent of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visiting the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore in 1998 – and with Israel, India has never fought a war.
The stage has been set for an expansion in ties between the two states – from upping the bilateral defence relationship, one-fifth of current $5 billion trade, to upgrading the diamond trade to expanding cooperation in sanitation, water resources and agriculture.
This first-ever visit by an Indian prime minister to the Jewish state – a state that India voted against when it came into being in 1948 because it was carved out of the Palestinian territories – is breaking new ground every hour.
In a reflection of how the world has changed these 69 years, Modi is also the first Indian leader not to visit any Palestinian town. Modi had prepared for this moment in May itself when he invited Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to Delhi – in fact, Modi has been preparing for it since he came to power in 2014, visiting all the major states in West Asia, like Iran and Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The journey to Israel has come last, in this part of the world.
To those who care to look, the PM is sending out another message beyond the more obvious one of de-hyphenating the Israel-Palestine relationship. This is aimed at the US and the increasing transactional cost of the India-US relationship, in which India must buy-buy-buy from the US so as to keep Donald Trump in reasonably good humour.
Modi is calculating that his genuine affection for Israel is bound to have an impact on the enormously powerful American Jewish community which remains extremely involved in Israeli politics. Hopefully in time this will influence the US establishment to look much more kindly upon Delhi.
Of course, Modi is the latest link in a chain that has persisted with ties with Israel. It all began with none other than Congress prime minister PV Narasimha Rao who went against his own party to reach out to Tel Aviv in 1992, under the foreign secretaryship of the redoubtable JN Dixit.
Asked whether India was going back on India’s foreign policy foundations, Dixit would point out that the Arab world had never supported India when it mattered, during the 1971 war against Pakistan.
Of course, Dixit was using the situation that pertained on the ground to suit his argument. He had realized soon enough that India would need Israeli help in a post-Cold War world to help smoothen its ride in a tough neighbourhood. Not that Pakistan and Israel were not cosying up to each other behind the scenes as well. In fact, their foreign ministers had met in 1994, at the exact same time Dixit was in the top job advising PVNR.
Then in 2000, Atal Behari Vajpayee sent external affairs Jaswant Singh to Israeli, the first foreign minister to make a visit and to underline Delhi’s eagerness. Congress foreign minister SM Krishna followed in 2012, President Pranab Mukherjee in 2015 and BJP foreign minister Sushma Swaraj in 2016. They all went to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Sometimes India’s large Muslim population was cited as the real reason for India’s reluctance to shed the dephyphenation – even though foreign policy has never pandered to religious or ethnic sentiments – while other times it has been India’s tight embrace of non-alignment which hobbled it from stepping into the future.
On his first day, Modi has already talked about jointly dealing with terror – twice. He has expressed his admiration for the Israeli soldier, only one of three, who died rescuing over a 100 people in the Entebbe raid in Uganda – he was Netanyahu’s older brother.
Certainly, the PM hopes India could be more like Israel, disregarding international criticism on surgical strikes as well as human rights violations. The fact that Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops means that Israel is also looking for uncritical friends.
Watch this space for Day Two.