Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended an “extraordinary” welcome to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi when the latter arrived at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Tuesday for a three-day “path-breaking” visit to the Jewish nation.
In the presence of his entire Cabinet, PM Netanyahu welcomed Modi (the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel), saying in Hindi: “Apka swagat hai, mere dost.” (Welcome, my friend). He also said: “We have been waiting for the last 70 years for a visit by an Indian PM. I remember what you told me in our first meeting: when it comes to India and Israel relations, the sky is the limit. But now, prime minister, let me add even sky is not the limit. We are also co-operating in space.” Modi responded in Hebrew: “Shalom, ani same’ah lihyot kan.” (Hello, I am happy to be here.)
Modi also appreciated the special welcome accorded to him, stressing: “It is my honour to be the first ever Indian PM to undertake this ground-breaking visit to Israel. Building a strong and resilient relationship with Israel will be my intent and focus.” He also set the tone of his visit by saying: “We have to secure our societies against the common threat of terrorism.” Noting that both the countries suffer from the “evil” forces of terrorism, the visiting Indian premier said that New Delhi and Jerusalem would co-operate with each other to secure societies against the common threat.
Later on Tuesday, the Indian premier visited the Danziger ‘Dan’ flower farm and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. Along with PM Netanyahu, he toured the Hall of Names, which contains photographs and names of Holocaust victims, the Children’s Memorial and also participated in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance. In the visitors’ book at the memorial, the Indian premier wrote: “I am deeply moved by my visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is as much a poignant reminder of the unspeakable evil inflicted generations ago as it is a symbol of the endurance and fortitude of the Jewish people.” He also wrote: “As we deal with conflict, intolerance, hatred and terror in our time, Yad Vashem serves as a mirror to societies around the world. May we not forget the injustices of the past and its devastating toll on humanity. And remembering the past, may we empower our children to make compassionate, just and righteous choices for their future.”
The Indian PM is scheduled to address the Israeli Parliament and to hold separate meetings with PM Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday.
Senior diplomats and foreign policy experts have welcomed India and Israel’s decision to bolster defence and economic ties. Former Indian Ambassador to Israel and the US Arun K Singh has said that PM Modi’s visit is a firm step towards maximising India’s own interests. In an article published in an Indian national daily on Tuesday, Singh said: “Every country pursues its foreign policy to maximise its own national interests. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel. Qatar had hosted an Israeli trade office for many years. There have been reports of contacts and back channel links between several Arab countries and Israel. The Palestinian leadership, despite disagreements and disappointments, also engages periodically in talks.” He added: “It is clear, therefore, that India’s interests lie, while maintaining its principles, in securing bilateral co-operation for its own interests. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel at this stage is another firm step in that direction.”
However, some diplomats have advised India not to be carried away by Israel’s bluster. M K Bhadrakumar – a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001) – has said that the Modi government should not underestimate the real challenge, which India will have to face due to its close ties with Israel. He also said that it is still very much a “boutique relationship” or “a transactional relationship at its core based on its utility value to both countries, but enveloped in an aura of romance”.
Bhadrakumar insisted that India (fundamentally) could not agree with Israel’s definition of “Islamic terrorism”. He argued that the Jewish state lacks honesty when it speaks of “Islamic terrorism” because there is incontrovertible evidence. Citing US observers’ reports from the Golan Heights, the seasoned diplomat said that “Israel has kept covert dealings with al-Qaeda affiliates”. Bhadrakumar strongly criticised the top Israeli leadership for backing the US-led project to destabilise Syria and overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, stressing that Jerusalem used al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State (IS) as “strategic assets” in recent years.
“India would have grave reservations about the disruptive role Israel is currently playing in its region in causing the destruction of Syria, which has been a close friend of India. The Israeli agenda is to balkanise Syria, and if Netanyahu’s luck holds, even annex a large swathe of Syrian territory in addition to the Golan Heights which it has been illegally occupying since the 1967 Six-Day War. This brings us to another point. Israel is reportedly preparing to launch a ground operation to invade Syria and Lebanon. Even as PM Modi arrives in Israel, the preparations are underway,” added Bhadrakumar.
So far, India’s security co-operation with Israel has been like an iceberg as only a small part of it has been in the public. And the rest was in deep water. Now, New Delhi is openly celebrating the 25th anniversary of Indo-Israeli diplomatic ties. Like most world leaders, Modi has decided not to keep Israel and Palestine in the same bracket. It is a fact that the Indian security and intelligence structure have largely been dependent on Israeli support for the last 18 years. The question is: why the Modi government is highlighting the security co-operation with Israel, instead of continuing the secret co-operation?
Of course, open friendship is better than a clandestine affair and it is necessary to lift the curtain on close ties. However, New Delhi should keep in mind that owning up the relationship with the Jewish state would not only enrage Arab, but also anger Indian Muslims. Diplomats are of the opinion that India has reset its foreign policy (as never before) due to strategic reasons. In the last three years, the South Asian country has created more enemies than friends (thanks to the Modi government’s foreign policy). India’s relations with neighbouring Pakistan and China have deteriorated in recent times. In such a situation, the PM is trying hard to put India’s ‘enemies’ under tremendous pressure by celebrating friendship with Israel, which has the most technologically advanced armed forces on the Earth.