New Delhi: Heralding a new phase in bilateral relations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Israel on what he described as a “groundbreaking" visit, bringing ties—for long in the shadows —out into the open.

Modi is the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, a country with which India has close cooperation in defence, counter-terrorism, agriculture and innovation but where no Indian prime minister has dropped by in the past seven decades since India and Israel came into existence.

Waiting to receive him at the Ben Gurion airport —just outside of Tel Aviv—was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Later, describing Modi warmly as “my friend", Netanyahu welcomed Modi with the Hindi greeting: “Aapka swagat hai mere dost (you are welcome my friend)."

Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu after a ceremony at the Ben Gurion airport. Photo: AFP
Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu after a ceremony at the Ben Gurion airport. Photo: AFP

“Prime minister, we have been waiting for you a long time, almost 70 years," Netanyahu said. Stating that he viewed Modi as a “kindred spirit", Netanyahu recalled his first meeting with Modi at the United Nations in September 2014, when the two prime ministers agreed to “break down the remaining walls" and forge “a historic partnership for progress".

Netanyahu said he was ready to match Modi’s “Make in India" initiative with his “Make with India" policy, announcing the setting up of a $40 million innovation fund. “I am confident of the success of our partnership for many reasons," Netanyahu said, listing Modi’s leadership as one of them.

The visit comes as the two countries are marking 25 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 which coincided with the start of the Arab-Israeli peace process. This is despite India recognizing Israel in 1950 and allowing the Jewish nation to open a consulate in Mumbai that helped facilitate the migration of Indian Jews to Israel. But through the 1970s and 1980s, India was seen a firm backer of the Palestinian cause.

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Notwithstanding early visits to India by then Israeli president Ezer Weizman in 1996 and former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2003, India was not seen to be comfortable with openly acknowledging its ties with Israel. Consequently, it was only in 2015 that Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel.

During his current visit, Modi will not travel to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority and a customary stop for visiting leaders trying to maintain a balance in political ties. India, however, did host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi last month, though that visit was seen as low key.

In his remarks, Modi said he viewed Israel as an “important partner" in India’s quest for “sustained high growth and all-round development", especially as it seeks science and technology to overcome development challenges.

PM Narendra Modi (centre) accompanied by Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev (L) visit the ‘Hall of Names’ in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Photo: AFP
PM Narendra Modi (centre) accompanied by Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev (L) visit the ‘Hall of Names’ in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Photo: AFP

Referring to an important pillar of cooperation between India and Israel, Modi said “we are also cooperating to secure our societies against common threats like terrorism". He recalled that his arrival in Israel was on the 41st anniversary of “Operation Thunderbolt" when Israel deployed special forces to secure the release of more than 100 Israelis held hostage in the Ugandan airport at Entebbe on 4 July, 1976. A commando killed in the operation was Netanyahu’s brother, Modi recalled, paying tribute. “My visit marks a path-breaking journey of engagement...a strong resilient partnership with Israel will be my intent and focus," Modi said.

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According to Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at London-based King’s College, “Modi too has taken his own time in making this visit happen."

“He first assiduously wooed the Arab Gulf states and Iran, recognizing how vital these countries are for India’s diplomatic footprint in the Middle East," Pant said, referring to visits by Modi to countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran before making the visit to Israel.

“This has ensured that he can’t be blamed for ignoring the wider region in favour of Israel. His ministers and even the president of India, meanwhile, engaged Tel Aviv on a whole range of issues," Pant said.

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