A wait of nearly 70 years came to an end Tuesday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at Ben-Gurion Airport to begin his two-day visit, the first ever by a sitting Indian premier.
“Prime Minister, we’ve been waiting for you a long time,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Modi at a short welcoming ceremony on the airport tarmac. “We receive you with open arms. We love India.”
Netanyahu began his brief comments with some words in Hindi, “Aapka swagat hai mere dost” (“Welcome, my friend”).
“We admire your culture, we admire your history, your democracy, your commitment to progress,” Netanyahu said. “We view you as kindred spirits in our common quest to provide a better future for our peoples and for our world.”
Modi, who arrived on an Air India jumbo jet in the late afternoon and embraced Netanyahu warmly after descending the stairs from the plane, opened his comments by saying in Hebrew, “I am very happy to be here.”
“My visit marks a path-breaking journey of engagement, a journey we are excited to undertake together for the good of our peoples and our societies,” he said. “Building a strong and resilient relationship with Israel will be my intent and focus.”
Modi, who since his election in 2014 has significantly raised the profile of his country’s ties with Israel, said it was his “singular honor to be the first-ever prime minister of India to undertake this groundbreaking visit to Israel.”
“The people of Israel have built a nation on democratic principles,” he said. “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.”
The Indian premier, dressed in a white bandhgala suit in the sweltering heat, recalled in his remarks that July 4 is the anniversary of the 1976 Entebbe rescue raid, saying: “Your prime minister and my friend Bibi lost his elder brother Yoni [Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu], while saving the lives of so many Israeli hostages.”
The two leaders, who met in 2014 and again in 2015 at international meetings abroad, are believed to have struck up a positive personal relationship that was on display at the airport.
“What a great day, what a historic day. Welcome my friend,” Netanyahu said to Modi when he descended from the plane.
Putting the arrival of the Indian prime minister in a historical context, one Indian journalist on the scene said that, until the 1980s, Indian passports included the following text: “This passport is valid for travel to all countries except Israel and South Africa.”
Netanyahu, in his comments, noted that, at their first meeting at the United Nations in 2014, Modi said: “When it comes to India-Israel’s relations, the sky’s the limit.
“The ties between our talented innovative peoples is natural. It’s so natural that we could ask what took so long for them to blossom,” said Netanyahu. “Well, it took a meeting of minds and hearts, it took a commitment of our governments. We have that today.”
Netanyahu said he was confident in the success of the India-Israel partnership for a number of reasons. First, he said, “is the talent of our peoples,” noting that it has been said that the two most common languages in Silicon Valley are Hebrew and Hindi.
Second, he said, there is “a great sympathy between our peoples – the natural camaraderie between Indians and Israelis.”
Finally, he said, he is confident in the success of the relationship because of leadership and that Modi’s visit was a testament to his being both a great leader of India and a world leader.
Following the ceremony at the airport, the two leaders went to Moshav Mishmar Hashiva, near Beit Dagan, and visited the Danziger “Dan” flower farm, one of Israel’s leading floriculture companies, with approximately 80,000 square meters of state-of-the-art greenhouses specializing in the breeding and production of flowering and ornamental plants.
That this was the first stop on Modi’s visit highlighted that one of India’s key interests in closer cooperation with Israel is its expertise in agricultural technology. They were joined by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, and the Indian leader was presented with a new strain of a white chrysanthemum named for him: “Modi.”
He then proceeded to Yad Vashem where he visited the Hall of Names, placed a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance and toured the Children’s Memorial.
Though the jam-packed 49-hour schedule has been planned out to the minute, Netanyahu suggested to Modi that they visit the nearby grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, and Modi immediately agreed. Afterward, they went to Netanyahu’s residence for a dinner meeting.
Before the dinner, Netanyahu congratulated Modi on the reforms he has instituted to free up India’s economy, and joked that he was “inspired by Prime Minister Modi’s enthusiasm for yoga,” and was going to take up the practice himself at a “low level.”
Modi said his visit to Yad Vashem was a reminder of man’s unspeakable cruelty, but “also a tribute to your unbreakable spirit to rise above the depths” and build a viable democratic nation.
“Yad Vashem tells us that those who believe in humanity and civilized values must come together,” he said. “As such, we must resolutely oppose the evils of terrorism and the violence that plagues our times.”