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 Narendra Modi visited Israel as Gujarat Chief Minister in October 2006, Modi arrived at the Ben Gurion International Airport here, 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 degress 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, your culture, democracy, your 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, as he called Modi his “friend”.
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 a Israel Defense 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 is also slated to visit Yad Vashem, the Hall of Names, attend the memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance, tour the Children’s Memorial and sign the Yad Vashem Guest Book.
The two leaders will then head to the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, which will be their opportunity to discuss the bilateral aspects of the relationship.
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 — and they are going to showcase their “strategic partnership” in agriculture and water, innovation and science and technology, and space.
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 that an example of this is the elaborate roadmap of commitments prepared by the two countries to strengthen ties on multiple fronts — including economic ties, 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, cyber, space, 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.”