Israel pulls out tea and Hindi for Modi
|Charu Sudan Kasturi|
|An Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter plane performs at an air show during the graduation of new cadet pilots at Hatzerim base in the Negev desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beer Sheva, on Thursday. (AFP)
New Delhi, July 1: Welcome messages in Hindi from Israeli citizens have reached Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A posse of Israeli officials led by his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu will greet him at Tel Aviv airport. And a welcome that eluded even Donald Trump awaits Modi at his Jerusalem hotel.
Israel, long the driver of relations with India, is sharply tuning its standard preparations for visiting world leaders to cater to the most powerful symbol of the reciprocity it has long sought – Modi’s visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, starting Tuesday.
The three-day visit by Modi represents a major diplomatic victory for Netanyahu, 67 years after India first recognised Israel, 25 years after they established diplomatic ties, and 14 years after an Israeli Prime Minister – Ariel Sharon – travelled to New Delhi, senior officials and experts told The Telegraph.
The two countries had quietly cooperated in defence and agriculture through the years when they did not have formal ties, and since 1992, Israel has gently pressed a reluctant India to publicly acknowledge the relevance of the relationship for both.
Modi’s visit signals a break from that past hesitation, and his hosts are stepping beyond the norm to highlight the path-breaking nature of the trip: from the reception at the airport to the tea set in the suite the Indian Prime Minister will occupy at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
"This is a diplomatic coup for Netanyahu," said Nicolas Blarel, assistant professor at Leiden University, the Netherlands, and author of the 2014 book, The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy, in a phone interview with this newspaper. "The Israeli government is treating this visit as a really, really big deal."
Earlier this week, the Israel embassy here released videos of Israeli citizens – young men and women – welcoming Modi in Hindi. The video culminated in a message from Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador in New Delhi.
Modi responded by thanking Carmon – also in Hindi.
Netanyahu last week led an Israeli cabinet resolution on "strengthening ties with the Republic of India" that Carmon called "unprecedented". The resolution listed 18 specific targets and financial commitments from Israel worth $80mn over the next five years – to propel bilateral trade, investment, tourism and cooperation in research, higher education, agriculture and water conservation.
The Israeli Prime Minister has already made clear that he will personally spend the best part of two days with Modi during the Indian leader’s visit, and will greet him at the airport with 40 senior officials.
The Jerusalem Post reported this week that King David Hotel was pulling out for Modi a British-era relic that it last used when Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited in 2015: a tea cosy.
The warmer that is placed over teapots is no longer used much in Israel, which got over its British cultural hangover much faster than India. But both Mukherjee and Modi are known to be fond of the padded cover.
The hotel has also shifted its bar temporarily – that space has been turned into a media centre for the visit.
While Modi is expected to stay in the same suite in which US President Trump stayed during his visit last month, the Indian leader will receive a reception at the entrance from the hotel’s management – something the American did not.
"The anticipation and excitement in Israel for the visit by Prime Minister Modi, and for what it represents, is just immense," Carmon said earlier this week.
While Modi’s visit is unprecedented, it comes on the back of a series of steps taken by multiple Israeli and Indian governments – including those led by the Opposition Congress – that have led to this moment.
Under Jawaharlal Nehru, India had recognised Israel in 1950 – after having opposed the creation of a separate Jewish state in 1948. India had instead proposed a shared federal structure.
But even though India refused to allow an Israeli embassy in India – or to set one up in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – Nehru had sought Israel’s help in agriculture, and then during the 1962 war.
India also turned to Israel for military technology during the 1965 and 1971 wars. It received help in each case.
"There was probably an understanding in Israel that at some point, India would open up," Blarel said. "And Israel has always seen an enormous potential for ties with India, especially with defence exports."
A key turning point came in 1985, when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi met his Israel counterpart Shimon Peres in New York – the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
Five years later, India under Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel.
In 1993, Peres visited India as foreign minister. Israel’s military assistance to India during the 1999 Kargil war brought the countries even closer.
Foreign minister Jaswant Singh and deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani visited Israel – the senior-most Indian leader to have done so at the time – in 2000. In 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India.
Netanyahu is expected to become the second Prime Minister from his country to visit India late this year.
Under the Congress-led UPA from 2004 to 2014, the visibility of ties reduced – but the content did not, especially in the defence sector. "Defence purchases by India actually went up," said Blarel. "It’s just that the relationship wasn’t that visible."
Still, India’s reluctance to publicly embrace an increasingly crucial relationship stood out in contrast with Israel’s enthusiasm. That, Blarel said, will change with Modi’s visit.
"You had this historic baggage," he said. "That’s gone now."