Arriving for ‘groundbreaking’ trip, Modi vows strong India-Israel ties

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Israel Tuesday afternoon for a three-day visit both countries lauded as a historic affirmation of the ties between the two nations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the Indian leader after he touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport at a red carpet ceremony that included an honor guard of IDF soldiers and dozens of Israeli dignitaries.

Billed as a celebration of the 25-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, Modi’s visit marks the first to Israel by an Indian head of government. Besides sit-downs with senior politicians and business leaders, his packed itinerary includes meeting a Jewish victim of a terror attack in Mumbai; visiting a flower farm, a desalination plant and the Israel Museum; headlining a rally for thousands of Indians living in Israel; and laying wreaths at a military cemetery in Haifa.

In a welcome speech on the tarmac, under shade against the blazing sun of an ongoing heatwave, Netanyahu told Modi, “Prime minister, we’ve been waiting for you a long time, 70 years in fact. The connection between us is natural, so natural that we might ask, “What took so long?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, greets his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, second left, during an official ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

“Yours is truly a historic visit,” he continued. “It’s the first time an Indian prime minister is visiting Israel. We receive you with open arms. We love India. We love your culture, your history, your democracy. We view you as kindred spirits.”

Taking to the podium Modi declared, in Hebrew, “Shalom, I am happy to be here.”

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Hello Israel! Today I begin a special & historic visit with the aim of further strengthening the relations between India and Israel.

Switching to English he continued, “It’s my singular honor to be the first ever prime minister of India to undertake this groundbreaking visit to Israel.”

Modi then thanked “my friend Prime Minister Netanyahu for the invitation and for receiving me with so much warmth,” and promised to build “a strong and resilient partnership with Israel.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he disembarks from his plane upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv, July 4, 2017. (AFP/Jack GUEZ)

“My visit celebrates the strength of centuries-old links between our societies,” he added. “The people of Israel have built a nation on democratic principles. They have nurtured it with hard work and the spirit of innovation. India applauds your achievements.”

Modi, who visited Israel for the first time in 2006 as chief minister of Gujarat, made mention of Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, who was killed on July 4, 1976 during a raid to free Israeli hostages being held in Entebbe Uganda.

“Your heroes are an inspiration for the younger generations,” he said.

“Friends, India is a very old civilization, but a young nation. Eight hundred million people in India are below 25 years of age. The talented and skilled youth of India are also its driving force.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) introduces his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (C) to religious leaders during an official ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who was also at the airport to greet Modi, tweeted that top-tier dignitaries were issued special identity tags as a measure “to prevent infiltrators” — an apparent reference to backbench Likud MK Oren Hazan, who sneaked into the front line of the welcome party greeting US President Donald Trump when he arrived for a visit in May. Hazan cheekily demanded of the leader of the free world a few moments to take a joint selfie photograph, to the consternation of Netanyahu who watched the encounter.

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הפקת לקחים מאירועי טראמפ: לכל חברי סגל א חולקו תגי זיהוי, למניעת מסתננים

Modi’s visit is expected to focus on bolstering economic and defense ties. India has in recent years become one of Israel’s largest arms purchasers.

Netanyahu said the two countries are establishing a $40 million innovation fund “as a seed for further innovation” and are working together in “water, agriculture, security, energy, many, many other fields.”

“It’s said that in Silicon Valley in California, the two most-heard languages are Hindi and Hebrew,” the Israeli prime minister quipped. “Occasionally one hears native English too.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-L) greets his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (C-R) during an official ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Pointedly, the Indian prime minister will not visit the Palestinian Authority, an exceedingly rare move for countries with good ties in the Arab world. New Delhi has explained this anomaly as part of a desire to “de-hyphenate” its relationships with Jerusalem and with Ramallah.

India had traditionally voiced its support for Palestinian statehood, long shunning ties with Israel.

To underline the importance Jerusalem is ascribing to Modi’s visit, Netanyahu cleared his schedule to be at his prominent guest’s side throughout almost the entire time he is in the country. This kind of attention by an Israeli prime minister is usually reserved for American presidents.

“I will accompany the prime minister at many events during his visit, as befits the leader of the largest democracy in the world,” Netanyahu said Monday during the weekly cabinet meeting.

On Tuesday, hours before Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, he and Netanyahu co-authored an opinion piece hailing the importance of this week’s visit.

“The natural partnership between India and Israel, formally elevated 25 years ago to full diplomatic relations, has grown stronger from year to year. The deep connection between our peoples reflects our many similarities in spirit, if not in size,” the two leaders wrote in the piece, which was published in The Times of India and Israel Hayom newspapers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, during the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Besides the high symbolic value and the diplomatic meetings, Modi’s visit has a strong economic focus as well. The two countries are set to establish a new “India-Israel CEOs Forum,” which is expected to serve as a hub to foster trade and commerce.

“I will join with leading Indian and Israeli CEOs and startups to discuss our shared priority of expanding business and investment collaboration on the ground,” Modi wrote on Facebook. “In addition, I hope to get insights into Israel’s accomplishments in technology and innovation through on-site visits.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of a defense industries of Israel pavilion during an arms fair held in the city of Bangalore, India, on February 18, 2015. Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/FLASH90)

En route from the airport to Jerusalem, the two prime ministers were to stop at the Mishmar Hashiva moshav to visit the Danziger Dan Flower Farm, one of Israel’s leading floriculture companies. Together with Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, the prime ministers will learn about the “innovative” way in which the flowers are produced there, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

After Modi and Netanyahu arrive in the capital, they were scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. The two leaders were to visit the Hall of Names and participate in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance and tour the Children’s Memorial. At 8 p.m., Modi and Netanyahu will deliver statements to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, before dining together.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Indian Premier Narendra Modi at Ben Gurion Airport on July 4, 2017. (screen capture: GPO)

On Wednesday morning, Modi will hold a working meeting with President Reuven Rivlin. From the President’s Residence, he will head back to the King David Hotel for another working meeting with Netanyahu. After the two leaders have lunch together, they will attend a ceremony during which a series of bilateral agreements will be signed, and deliver statements to the press.

In the afternoon, Modi is set to meet opposition leader Isaac Herzog and members of the Indian community. He will then head to the Israel Museum, where together with Netanyahu he will walk through the Synagogue Route and gaze at a reconstruction of the Kadavumbagam synagogue from the town of Cochin in southern India. The 16th-century wooden structure has “an exquisitely carved and painted ceiling directly influenced by the decorations of mosques and Hindu temples,” according to the Israel Museum.

A crumbling old Cochin synagogue (photo credit: CC-BY, Emmanuel Dyan via Flickr)

“The Jewish community in India was always welcomed with warmth and respect and never faced any persecution,” Modi and Netanyahu wrote in their joint article Tuesday. “The Jews of Indian origin in Israel are proud of their heritage and have left an indelible imprint on both societies. Both communities serve as a human bridge between our nations.”

On Wednesday evening, at around 8, the two prime ministers will address a major rally at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, which is expected to draw some 4,000 participants. Before the two leaders make their speeches, the crowd will be entertained by a cultural program, including a performance by popular Bollywood playback singer Sukhwinder Singh.

In Tel Aviv, he will also meet with diamond merchants from Gujarat, a state in western India. “I am particularly looking forward to interacting with the large vibrant Indian diaspora in Israel that represents an enduring link between our two peoples,” Modi wrote on Facebook.

About 12,000 non-Jewish Indian nationals currently live and work in Israel, as well as some 80,000 Israeli Jews with at least one parent of Indian origin. Only 5,000 Jews remain in India today.

In Tel Aviv, Modi is also scheduled to meet Moshe Holtzberg, the now 12-year-old son of two Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, who were killed in a November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. He is also expected to meet with Sandra Samuel, Moshe’s nanny at the time, who rescued the boy on the day of the attack.

The attack on the Indian city’s Chabad House was part of a mass attack in the city by a Pakistani Islamist group that left 166 dead and hundreds injured. In addition to the Holtzbergs, four other Jewish visitors to the Chabad House were killed in the attack.

Moshe Holtzberg seen on his first day at first grade in the city of Migdal Haemek on August 26,2012. Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who was five months pregnant, were killed during the November 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistani Islamic terrorists. Their two-year-old son Moshe survived the attack after being rescued by his Indian nanny, Sandra Samuel. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

On Thursday morning, Modi and Netanyahu will take a helicopter ride to Haifa, where they will visit a cemetery where Indian soldiers who fought in World War I are buried. Modi is expected to lay two wreaths — one for Hindu and one for Muslims soldiers — “who laid down their lives during the liberation of Haifa in 1918,” as he explained in his Facebook post.

On their way back to Tel Aviv, Modi and Netanyahu will stop at Olga Beach to visit a water desalination unit operated by G.A.L. Water Technologies. “Israel’s extreme water crises in the past place it in a unique position to understand India’s quest for efficient water solutions,” the two prime ministers wrote. “The cost effective adaptation of Israeli technology to India’s needs could create new solutions that we could use to help address the water challenges of other developing nations across the globe.”

Modi and Netanyahu will proceed to have lunch with Indian and Israeli executives at the Dan Hotel, before attending a large innovation conference, during which five Israeli companies and four Indian companies will make presentations.

In 1992, when diplomatic ties were established, bilateral trade was at about $200 million. Today, it reaches $5 billion, one-fifth of which is in Israeli defense exports.

After a short meeting with Indian students late Thursday afternoon, Modi will head to the airport, where Netanyahu will bid him goodbye during an official ceremony.

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