Ahead of his historic visit to Israel, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tells Israel Hayom that the two countries are ready to “take the relationship to a new level” • Israel “braved many odds” and has “amazing accomplishments,” he says.
It is not every day that one meets a prime minister representing 1.2 billion people, one considered a superstar at home and abroad. Maybe that is why the meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi felt so special.
Modi is set to arrive in Israel on July 4 for what will be a historic visit: the first to this country by a sitting Indian prime minister. Despite the disparity in the sizes of the two countries, the relationship between them is one of equals, as far as he is concerned.
Modi is a different kind of leader. With sky-high popularity among Indians, he can say what he wants and push for the reforms he seeks. He has tried to move India forward and make it a global leader. For him, the path to achieving those goals passes through Israel. This should be a badge of honor for all Israelis. He knows Indians love him, but he also knows that he must not fail. That is his big challenge.
When I arrive at Modi’s official residence, I discover that the man who always looks tough in front of the cameras is a friendly person who knows how to smile. He takes immense pride in his success in pulling himself up by the bootstraps after being born into poverty.
Exuding confidence, Modi shares with me a local dictum he uses as his mantra: “Sarvajan Hitay Sarvajan Sukhay, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.” Loosely translated, it means, “In the interest of all, for the benefit of all, together with all, development for all.”
Throughout the interview, he makes a conscious effort to point out the deep ties between the Indian and Israeli peoples. He believes the two nations are soulmates. They share a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that gives the partnership its own dimension. He and his people have also gone out of their way to tap into this sentiment by organizing a rally for the local Indian community in Tel Aviv on July 5, to be led by Modi himself. He considers this a very important part of his trip, his way of showing his respect to the local Indian community.
Q. What do you know about Israel? Have you ever visited Israel?
“I got firsthand experience of Israel during my visit to Israel in 2006, as chief minister of the Indian State of Gujarat, to take part in an Agritech exhibition. I am happy to return after more than a decade, and I look forward to seeing the developments and advances Israel has made in this time.
“I share the view of many of my fellow citizens about Israel. In India, Israel is perceived as a technological powerhouse, and a country that has braved many odds. Many tech-based inventions have their roots in Israeli universities and laboratories and have benefited humankind. These include articles ranging from USB flash drives to cherry tomatoes. The way you transformed yourself from being a water-deficient country to a water-surplus country; the manner in which you made your deserts bloom, are all amazing accomplishments. All these images have made a deep imprint on my mind.”
Q. Why have you made a decision to go ahead with this historic visit?
“Bilateral ties between our countries have always been strong. In fact, over the years, they have been continuously expanding and diversifying. In the recent past, the steady strengthening of our ties has begun finding reflection and reinforcement in high-level visits. You would have noticed that the frequency of exchanges has gone up over the last three years. No Indian president or prime minister had visited Israel before our president visited in 2015. President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to India in 2016 was only the second Israeli presidential visit to India.
“My forthcoming visit reminds us of the deep and centuries old connect between our societies. It is in line with our view that our ties should be reflected in all spheres of our engagement and backed by regular high-level contact. I think that this year, as we celebrate 25 years of our diplomatic relations, it is an opportune occasion to take the relationship to a new level.”
Q. Does this decision imply a more pro-Israel posture in the U.N.?
“Our positions at the U.N. are based on the merit of specific issues and driven by our core values and principles. We remain engaged with all our partners, including Israel, in finding optimal outcomes at the U.N. and other multilateral fora that reflect our commonly shared priorities and concerns. India is not in favor of singling out any country at the U.N.”
Q. Does India still consider itself unaligned with either the West or the East?
“We believe in the philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ which means ‘the world is one family.’ We want to engage constructively with both the East and the West.
Q. Are Israel and India facing the same threat of terrorism?
“Terrorism is a global menace. India and Israel are not immune to it either. We are in full agreement that elements which perpetrate violence on innocent people should not be allowed to flourish. Cross-border terrorism is a major challenge for us. Divisive forces across our border are trying to disrupt the unity of our nation. These troublemakers often misuse religion as a tool to misguide youth in our country and our regions. Terrorism should not be equated with any particular religion. India and Israel could cooperate even more closely and complement each other’s efforts to fight with the menace of terrorism.”
Q. Is this a reset or an upgrade of relations?
“My visit has its own significance as this is the first time ever that an Indian PM is visiting Israel. I am confident that my visit will lead to further strengthening of our relations in different areas and also open up new priorities for cooperation.”
Q. Will you agree to visit Jerusalem and the Western Wall like President Donald Trump?
“The principal objective of my visit is to deepen bilateral relations between India and Israel. I am sure I will visit Jerusalem. Elements of my visit and its program is being so arranged so that we can focus to taking forward our partnership with Israel in all the spheres, including technology and innovation links, agriculture and efficient resource use. “
Q. What is your position on the question of sovereignty in Jerusalem? Will India move its embassy?
“We believe in a two-state solution in which both Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist peacefully. A final-status agreement should respect the sentiments and address demands of all affected parties. The key to finding a solution to this issue lies with the affected parties. India supports all efforts to find an acceptable solution to all the pending issues, including Jerusalem. I assume the question refers to our embassy in Tel Aviv. We will take a decision on that after both sides have come to an agreement on Jerusalem.”
Q. Your biography, as a man who grew up in poverty and climbed up the ladder with hard work to become the country’s head of government, is impressive by any measure. But despite your past, you are an ardent supporter of the capitalist system and want to liberalize the economy. Can you explain what shaped your worldview?
“I do not believe in any ‘-isms.’ I, and my government work with the motto of ‘Together with all, development for all.’ We want our youth to become not just job-seekers but job-givers. We will adopt all measures necessary to unlock the innovation and entrepreneurial potential of our youth. My yardstick for supporting or advocating any course of action is the net benefit or value it brings to the lives of our people. And when this consideration is put first, the results can be deeply rewarding. I have seen that in my own home state, Gujarat in Western India, where I was the chief minister for 13 years, and now on the national scale in India.”
Q. You have tried to reform Indian society, in part by the use of modern technology in remote and rural communities that lack proper sanitary conditions. Can Israel play a role in this?
“Certainly. Israel could be a technology partner in this process of transformation. Israel’s capabilities offer a good match for our flagship schemes like Clean Ganga [the effort to clean the Ganges River] and Smart Cities. Israeli technologies could also be used to improve the quality of lives of hundreds of thousands of people in our country if Israeli innovators remodel their products according to the needs of our rural population. It is important to understand market trends among the rural sections.”
Q. What is the difference between the approach Israelis and Indians have when it comes to business, agriculture and other fields?
“As societies, India and Israel are both driven by a strong entrepreneurial mindset. Business cultures in the two countries are unique and have evolved from their respective context in which each has evolved. There may be differences in their approach but the Indian and Israeli businessmen whom I know have told me that both have similar scientific temperament.
Q. How can we describe to the average person what innovation ties are there between Israelis and Indians?
“I think the average person is highly aware of our innovation ties as the outcome of our engagement touches his life. Our perspective on innovation may be varied by but we both rely on it to add wealth and value to our societies. Israelis and Indians are innovative by birth. India and Israel both support and sustain unique innovation ecosystems. Our common effort is also to link the creativity of innovation with the energy of entrepreneurship.
Q. What kind of Israeli imports does India seek?
“We are not looking at a traditional import-export relationship with Israel. It is more than a buyer-seller relationship. We are more interested in a tech-based partnership with an emphasis on ‘Make in India.’ The Israeli industry has been fairly positive to many of our flagship schemes like ‘Clean Ganga.’ There is tremendous scope for deepening the extent of partnership in India’s flagship schemes.”