India’s foreign policy in West Asia has undergone a sea change over the past decade from being adamantly pro-Arab to one that also engages Israel. India’s balancing act, often difficult and messy, is a tight one and not always successful. It is important to remember that Indian passports prohibited travel to Israel as late as 1992, a fact that rankles Israel’s newly arrived ambassador Mark Sofer. But Kargil changed perceptions when Israel helped India in its time of need. Sofer discusses Indo-Israeli relations, mostly conducted below the radar.
What aspects of bilateral relations would you like to stress more during your tenure here?
There is no doubt, the way I view the burgeoning relations between Israel and India in the 15 years since the establishment of relations, the most important is economic cooperation in different fields -- trade, joint ventures and agriculture. We are just about to sign a three-year agricultural action plan with the Indian government which will take place in Rajasthan. We chose Rajasthan because the climate and terrain is similar to that of Israel. We will be doing a lot of work on water management, waste water, usage of water. And in the Pusa Institute where we have an Indo-Israeli farm which we initiated in 1996. We will both get a lot out of it because there is an extremely high level of agricultural expertise here in India. We feel Indians and Israelis really have got their act together in these areas and are working together.
What role can India play in the peace process?
There are a number of actors in the Middle East but first and foremost -- and I think this is what it really should be--it should be the actors themselves, that is Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world because we have to get our act together bilaterally with the pragmatic Palestinian leadership and pragmatic Arab leaders. The second actively engaged partners would be the Quartet--the US, the UN, Russia and the EU. I think India with good relations with both sides can certainly have a supportive role. It did take part in Annapolis at a very high level, which we were happy about and that was certainly a welcome contribution to peace. That is how I would look at it right now as the role of the international community in which India has a crucial role in bringing the sides together.
The paradox of the Middle East is that we know more or less what the solution would be--there will be a Jewish state and a state of Palestine -- we will live side-by-side with it and there will be some sort of Gaza-West Bank connection. Solution to the Palestinian refugees will not include their mass entry into Israel because once the state of Palestine is set up, it is unthinkable that the refugees wouldn’t go to Palestine but to Israel. There has to be an equitable solution, an economic solution for the refugee problem. It is a humanitarian issue, which must be addressed. The question of Jerusalem is a crucial one, which has to be solved. With the goodwill that exists and with hard and deep negotiations there are solutions put on the table already.
We know in macro terms where we are going but we haven’t managed to get there yet. The train has left the station and we are convinced that with pragmatic leadership it will reach its destination. The trouble is the crisis we in Israel, and the pragmatic Palestinians and the pragmatic Arab leaders are facing, which is the threat from extremism. The threat has to be countered on a much wider scale and to me Annapolis was that manifestation where you had on the side of peace 55 countries and those braying from the outside were those who were a 100 percent against any movement. You take the extremists of the Hamas, the extremists of the Hezbollah and you take unfortunately their mentor, President Ahmedenijad, which is not to say that Iranian people are of his ilk. Absolutely not. The leadership, which is calling incessantly for the destruction of the Jewish state, a member state of the UN, which is unheard of, should bring about revulsion.
But I believe the civilized world will win out as it always has and we know where we are going.
India’s former foreign minister Jaswant Singh once said in Israel that India’s policy towards Israel is "captive" to the internal politics of India. Do you agree with the assessment?
I think it would be very strange in any democratic society if foreign policy was not affected in one way or another by internal politics. It is normal. I believe it is true of Israel, it is true of many of the European states, as well as of the US. Internal considerations are important but no less important is cessation of conflict. A greater proportion of the Israeli population is Muslim compared to India. We have about one million Muslims in a country of about 8 million. We too have internal considerations. We have a relationship with much of the Muslim community in India. We don’t believe that Muslim community here wants to perpetuate conflict in West Asia. I don’t believe that in the least. I believe the Muslim world as a whole is not the one which wants to foster conflict and bloodshed. Unfortunately, Islam sometimes is abused and misused by the Bin Ladens of the world. This is not the Islam, which the vast, vast majority of the Muslims believe in, especially in India.
Do you think the UPA govt. has backtracked on its support for Israel compared to the NDA? Who is a better tightrope walker?
It would be wrong of me to make political statements on the internal politics of India. It would be an abuse of the hospitality I am given here. I would say we have a growing relationship with India. It is a new relationship, it is 15 years old. It is a bipartisan relationship meaning it encompasses both types of governments. If you look at our economic relationship we have trade worth over $3 billion, which was more or less zero 15 years ago. We have very close cooperation in agriculture, high-tech, defence and the list goes on. On political issues, yes, we have a very, very deep high level, middle level dialogue on all the issues which are affecting us in West Asia. We respect the point of the view of the Indian government tremendously. We can talk on the same wavelength. It augurs well for the future.
Israel sees Iran as an archenemy but India’s relations with Teheran are more complex given New Delhi’s domestic politics and the need for oil and gas. How does Israel view India’s participation in the pipeline?
I see there are different points of view taken up by different segments of society and I will not comment on how I view the pipeline. Of course, we have problems with Iranian leadership headed by this President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, just his most devilish use of language is unbearable. But I don’t think it is just an Israeli problem, for but the western world as a whole--and it is not just the US either. The most strident calls for Iran to desist from its nuclear enrichment programme are coming from European countries.
The present Iranian leadership is a threat not only to Israel. They have put us on the pedestal which they shouldn’t have done. They are a threat to the civilized world as we know it. And that is why the international community as a whole has got its act together. It wasn’t Israel that put sanctions on Iran on two separate occasions in United Nations. It was the international community, which doesn’t take its cue from us. It takes its cue from its own considerations, its own interests.
Does it bother you when senior Indian leaders visit Iran?
Different countries have different interests. A number of leaders from different countries travel. I think, on the macro level, if the international community as a whole looks at the extremist threat the same way, the threat will be overcome. It is not a question of this visit or that meeting. The issue is: will the global threat be contained? Of course we have a problem with the current Iranian leadership. We never have and we would never call for Iran’s destruction.
Do you think India could help moderate Iran’s stand?
I can ask you back that a president who has called for the eradication of an entire country (Israel), a president who has denied the Holocaust, who has decided that the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis didn’t exist--is this a person who can go towards moderation? Has anyone tried to convince Bin Laden to be moderate? There are certain personalities who will never be moderate. And it is not a question of dialogue. (Grows agitated) What am I going to discuss with him? That Israel shouldn’t be destroyed or only a little bit destroyed? My own death? Please don’t call for my mass murder? Or that I would like if you kill only half of me? What are we talking here? I am sure serious Iranians feel in their hearts that calls for the massacre of Jews in Israel is despicable. Yet he continues to say it. What do you discuss with him -- he knows or ought to know.
Last year Israel complicated the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal by asking the Nuclear Suppliers Group for similar treatment, which was very unhelpful. Israel’s position was the same as China’s, making Indians wonder about Israel’s real intentions.
Israel did not make its approach on that level. This was not done openly so I can’t say what we said or didn’t say. As I said earlier, countries have interests. We have our interests, India has its. Under no circumstances, and it is crucial to stress, did Israel take an approach which might be untoward vis- a-vis India. That wasn’t at all the reasoning in our discussions with the IAEA or with the US or with other countries. We wanted to put forward how we view the situation. We actually speak to the Indian government about it. We are not hiding anything under the table.
But it was kind of a surprise.
I don’t think it was a surprise to the Indians.
But your position ended up being the same as China’s.
Our position is absolutely not that. We didn’t coordinate. We were not coming from any type of collusion or discussion if that is the subtext here. Not at all. We were putting forward our point of view. That’s normal and I think countries ought to. It would be wrong to hide it. We have done nothing, and we will do nothing, and taken no influential position in any forum on the nuclear agreement. It is not something we are involved in.
Does Israel hope to benefit from relaxation of rules?
Let’s see if the Indian case goes through and we will see how to develop it forward. Very intense negotiations are going on right now and it is a matter of great internal debate here. It is also an international political issue so I am just reading the papers. It is too early to make any prognosis about what we will or will not do if and when the agreement goes through.
How can Israel help India more to counter terrorism with technology, tactics and intelligence?
There are no two situations which are identical. We do have a defence relationship with India, which is no secret. On the other hand, what is a secret is what is the defence relationship. And with all due respect the secret part of it will remain secret.
Do you think India’s neighbours are involved in cross-border terrorism?
The threat the world is facing today is quite different. It is civilized nations fighting groups, which is harder. It has made the world a more convoluted place and we all have to change our tactics and strategic thinking. We don’t have diplomatic relations with Pakistan but we do have excellent diplomatic relations with India and we do discuss these issues at very great length with Indian authorities. Cross border terrorism has to be dealt with on a number of levels. No conflict in the world can be solved through military means. Conflicts, sadly, do have to have a military component yet it has to be much more holistic approach with incentives with clear-cut political horizons. This is our experience. Yes, there are outside influences.
With extremism spreading, do you think India is still insulated?
You have 150 million Muslims in India. If one person here or there is involved, it is wrong to cast aspersions on the whole community. For goodness sake, there are still 149.9999 million who are not. We should not take one example and extrapolate. It’s wrong. But I don’t think anyone is insulated anymore. With the spread of the internet and television, and computers, there is no where in the world which is not affected. There is no bubble. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in West Asia, not in Southeast Asia.
It is said that terrorism the last resort of the weak and the dispossessed? Do you think India and Israel are handling that aspect adequately and addressing legitimate grievances?
I don’t have a view on that because that is for the Indian government to decide. It would be patronizing and condescending for me to say India is doing enough or not. I do think there has to be a basis for a political solution but we have to resign ourselves to the fact that with certain groups there can’t be a solution. I don’t think there can be a negotiated solution with Bin Laden who has taken upon himself to overthrow the existing order of the world as we know it. We have the same problem with Hamas in Gaza whose ideological aim is the destruction of Israel. This cannot be the basis for negotiations.
What do you think of India’s voting pattern in the UN on the Arab-Israeli issues where New Delhi votes with the Palestinians?
We have ongoing discussions with our Indian colleagues on the whole issue of the United Nations. I don’t think voting pattern is the be-all and end-all of relationships. Bilateral relations have to be based on much more than on mathematical equations of 1-nill, 2-all. It is not a cricket game. It is the easy way out. If we look at the relationship between Israel and India and look at where we were for 40 of those 60 years and see what’s happened in the last ten years, we are in dynamic mode.
But surely, it is a talking point.
Of course, it is a talking point and a sign of the maturity of our relationship. We put all issues on the table. India has issues with us. We don’t see eye-to-eye on every Indian policy on West Asia. We don’t always see eye-to-eye with the US, with European countries with whom we are very close. If you sweep everything unpalatable under the carpet, we have an immature relationship. Do I see eye-to-eye with my wife on everything, the answer is no. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a close relationship.
So it is not an irksome issue?
The UN General Assembly has not been helpful in bringing about peace in the Middle East. Voting patterns reflect the interest of the countries, which have nothing to do with the Middle East. I am not talking of India. In Israel, we don’t place too much importance on General Assembly where countries tend to vote by blocs. Recently, there has been a change in Israel’s relationship with the UN. Recently, Israel put forth a resolution on fighting desertification and alleviating poverty, which passed and India was very supportive.
How do you react to Arun Gandhi’s statement that Israel promotes a culture of violence and is too militaristic in its approach to the Arabs?
He said something which I would have preferred to not have been said. Reading his apology, I think he preferred not to have said it. I plan to initiate a dialogue with him of my own volition. I believe in dialogue. I believe he should learn more about Israel and the Jewish people. In the United States, there is a sort of dynamic …
What do you think of the intense reaction in the US against Arun Gandhi, who was forced to resign from his post?
I think there are people everywhere who have difficulty tackling criticism. It is not just people connected with Israel. The Jewish community in the United States is 5 million and is well known but it is not a single monolithic bloc but a plethora of different views.
Was there political correctness involved here?
I don’t know what was involved because I am not privy to decision. I will discuss this with him. I will explain where I am coming from.
Moving to defence issues, the Israeli and Indian armies have kept their interactions to a minimum but do you foresee the relationship growing to a point where the two sides would conduct joint exercises? If so you, do you have a timeline in mind?
Certain issues between countries do need to remain under wraps for whatever reason. I don’t think the Indian authorities would be happy if we were to discuss in public. We have a burgeoning relationship and the defence relationship got a major boost during Kargil, when Israel came to India’s assistance when India was in great need and brought about the turnaround in the situation on the ground. I think we proved then to Indian government that you can rely on us that we have the wherewithal. A friend in need is a friend indeed. I have been in India for four months and I hear a great deal of respect for Israel also on non-defence issues--agriculture, drip irrigation, high-tech. There is a groundswell of goodwill towards Israel among the Indian people.
Defence relationships between countries are generally secret and they should be. Certain facts are on the table but we don’t make a noise about things.
Two Indo-Israeli deals have come under a cloud for alleged payment of kickbacks--the Barak missile deal and the Phalcon early warning system deal. How can this be prevented?
I can’t say it is going on. We are assuming things here. First we have to see if somebody is being accused and found guilty then we can say how we prevent it. In the open societies we have, corruption arouses great revulsion. Does that make everyone in the history of mankind scrupulous? The answer is: no. Must one make every effort to prevent any kind of corruption should it exist? I think that governments must, and we do. The Indian government does. We learn from experience. It would be wrong to cast aspersions now.
India always wants the defence relationship to go beyond just a buyer-seller transaction.