TEL AVIV: “We have waited for 70 years for you,” Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu greeted PM Narendra Modi soon after his aircraft touched down to an effusive welcome that saw Modi reciprocating the warmth, saying his visit marked a “path breaking journey of engagement”.
As Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel , a late afternoon sun beat down on the red carpet at a secluded corner of Ben Gurion airport. As Air India One taxied up, Netanyahu was waiting at the bottom of the steps and Modi, dressed in a cream bandhgala, lightly ran down and both men enveloped each other in a bear hug.
“Aapka swagat hai mere dost,” Netanyahu said as the leaders hit the right notes. Modi returned a “shalom” and said in Hebrew that he was delighted to be in Israel.
Netanyahu said, “We love India. We admire your culture, history, democracy and commitment to progress. I am confident of the real mathematics of life, of success of our partnership for many reasons, talent of our people.”
Modi touched upon a personal memory of Netanyahu’s – Tuesday was the 41st anniversary of the Entebbe raid to save 94 Israeli hostages held in Uganda – an operation that claimed the life of the Israeli leader’s elder brother. “Your heroes are an inspiration for the younger generations,” Modi said.
The PM was greeted by leaders of all major religions here – Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jew, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic and Muslim – a ritual that is only reserved for the Pope or the US president. Netanyahu led Modi through introductions with his cabinet and senior officials.
When Modi introduced his delegation beginning with NSA Ajit Doval, Netanyahu said he was glad the visit had come to fruition. “You had something to do with it,” he told Doval.
In his welcome remarks, Netanyahu reminded Modi that he had said “the sky is the limit for India and Israel”. “We are working together in space programmes, so we can now say the sky is not the limit anymore,” he said. Acknowledging Modi’s love for acronyms, Bibi delivered one of his own, “I-square-plus-T-square – India and Israel plus Israeli technology and Indian talent, is India-Israel ties for tomorrow.”
Modi’s tried his hand at Hebrew with a “Shalom le kulaam ani semya mayodh lehiyot po (I am delighted to be here).” The PM’s appreciation of Israel clearly came through. “The people of Israel have built a nation on democratic principles. They have nurtured it with hard work, grit and the spirit of innovation. You have marched on regardless of adversity and converted challenges into opportunity. India applauds your achievements,” he said.
“In our path of sustained high growth and all around development, India counts Israel among its important partners. The need to rely on science, technology, innovation, and higher technical education to overcome our developmental challenges is common to both of us,” Modi added.
Both leaders clearly bonded at a personal level, which came through at the airport ceremony. Over the next couple of days, the two men will spend virtually all their waking moments together.
Later, Modi visited a flower farm, where he was given a chrysanthemum named after him . The business end of the visit had begun with a briefing on cutting edge agricultural technologies. A little later, Modi paid a symbolically significant visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, which has a hall with the name of 4.6 million victims of Nazi terror.
Michael Oren, former Israeli envoy to the US and a senior minister in Netanyahu’s office, told TOI, “India and Israel share democratic values and our partnership is important for development. Also, as the US begins to turn away, its important for us to look out for each other.”
In his interaction, Netanyahu welcomed back foreign secretary S Jaishankar. In the past few months, Doval and Jaishankar have made trips here to stitch up details of the visit and the agreements.