Interview

'Prime Minister Modi's visit to Israel will be monumental'

India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause should not interfere with its ties with Israel, says Israel envoy to India Daniel Carmon. Photo: Prashant Nakwe   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

“Hot pursuit”, or the need to cross over boundaries in pursuit of terror groups, is “one of the ingredients in a new kind of battleground”, says Israel’s Ambassador Daniel Carmon, supporting the Indian Army’s operations earlier this week in which forces were said to have crossed into Myanmar territory to raid Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) camps.



“The international community shouldn’t be cut and dry about what is right as defined only by the [UN] Human Rights Council. They should respect the right of countries to protect their boundaries, their values … because that is the first and foremost responsibility of any government,” Mr. Carmon told The Hindu in an interview, after concerns were raised by Pakistan and Myanmar over the statements.



The Ambassador said Israel and India faced the “same threat” of “asymmetric warfare”, adding, “We are two countries, one of a few that face the same threat: that our soldiers who are assigned to safeguard our national borders are attacked by such terrorism. This is a joint challenge for us.” Mr. Carmon indicated that anti-terror cooperation would be a highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, expected in the next six months. The Homeland Security Agreement, signed by the UPA government in February 2014, may be enhanced at that time.



While no dates have been set for Mr. Modi’s visit that will make him the first Indian Prime Minister to do so, the Ambassador said next month’s secretary-level meetings in Jerusalem, between Indian and Israeli officials, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who will visit Israel later this year, will make preparations for it.



Historic visit



However, given Mr. Modi’s already-packed travel schedule with foreign travel planned practically every month for the rest of 2015, senior diplomats said the historic visit may even have to be put off till “early 2016” when sources indicate he will travel to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Mr. Carmon said the visit would be both “historical and monumental” and would serve as “a signal to the bureaucracies and the people of both countries that ties will change”.



Asked if there was any indication from the government that India’s policy of supporting the Palestinian cause and its votes at the U.N. on resolutions criticising Israel’s actions in Gaza were changing, Mr. Carmon said that relations must not be judged by U.N. votes alone. “Look at the other changes, the number of dialogues on different issues, the number of visits being planned, the number of diplomatic meetings, and agreements signed,” he said commending Ms. Swaraj’s statement at a recent press conference on Israel and Palestine.



“I just wish people would take a balanced view like Ms. Swaraj has. India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause should not interfere with its ties with Israel.” Mr. Carmon said Israel now had effective relations with much of the Arab world, strengthened by recent cooperation on their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which he said showed that Israel-Palestinian relations are no longer a “zero-sum” game.

Full transcript of the interview:

The External Affairs Minister has said Prime Minister Modi will visit Israel... What should we expect from the visit, which is a first?



First of all, we don’t have dates at this stage. There are two visits, of the External Affairs Minister (EAM) and the PM, and a third visit in Jerusalem in the next couple of weeks. MEA consultations in two major fields will happen at the beginning of July, headed by senior officials. Annual talks between diplomatic officials will also prepare for the PM’s visit. The EAM visit is very important. In the last few years, we haven’t seen too many visitors going from India to Israel, except the EAM (SM Krishna) visit in 2012. If you look back a decade and more, we haven’t had too many visits, so if you consider that this is a one year old government, and already we know the EAM is coming, that’s very important. This has been debated even last September, when the ministers met in New York and a date was fixed for January 15th for Ms. Swaraj to visit, but we had elections and had to postpone it. But as soon as the new (Netanyahu) government came we knew there would be a visit.



The PM is, of course, a different magnitude which will be historical and monumental. This visit will encompass all aspects of our very intense and rich cooperation. We tend to fix the issue of defence most to the relations. Much as defence is important, it is only one part of relations. This is an emotional one, old traditions and old religions with a big influence over the world. If you look at interests, we also enjoy and share values and challenges, and we compliment each other. But that is not enough. We still primarily only work with the west. When an Israeli entrepreneur or high tech innovator thinks about expanding it is to US Canada Australia, but doesn’t think about India. That should change. Mr. Modi’s visit, with the agreements that will be signed, with the different areas he will visit, high technology plants, and universities, all of it will be a signal to the bureaucracies and the people of both countries that ties will change. All those in India and Israel who doubt whether we should work together will see the political will from the two leaders.



You said not many visits despite the close ties and this will be the first. Why do you think that has been?



Well I don’t know, or maybe I do and don’t want to say. But I will say that the PM’s visit will give ties a new visibility. After this visit, I hope to see a normalisation of visits - all leaders meeting as if there was no gap in the twenty years before that (since full diplomatic ties established), or fifty years before that (when Israel was recognised). Like two normal countries who have never had a problem with each other.



Is it also a signal to other countries in Israel’s neighbourhood, especially Palestine?



I think it is a signal, and the signal has been given by the Foreign minister Ms. Swaraj when she said in Parliament last July. She said India is committed to the Palestinian cause, and we will maintain good relations with Israel. It is not a zero sum game. It is okay to have good relations with one side without touching the other. It is a positive statement that sends a signal to anyone who thinks in traditional and obsolete way that you cannot have good relations with Israel without hurting ties with its Arab neighbours. The world has changed so much. I remember in the 50s and 60s how, when an Israeli diplomat walked into a room, all the Arabs would walk out. Those days are over. We have relations, official and unofficial, peace treaties, joint interests for example on the Iranian issue. I just wish people would take a balanced view like Ms. Swaraj has. India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause should not interfere with its ties with Israel. I don’t think her statement upset anyone. India has interests with the Arab world and that goes on.



Yet when it came to UN votes twice in the last year, including at the UNHRC, India voted against Israel.



We always want our friends to vote with Israel, we want them to understand our position. The UN doesn’t always represent the situation on the ground. So we would like India to vote with us, but I wouldn’t count every vote where it doesn’t as the end of the world.



Has the NDA government indicated a change from the past on Indian policy towards Israel? We saw PM Modi meeting PM Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA, and that hasn’t happened before?



Changes shouldn’t be measured by a UN vote. Look at the other changes, the number of dialogues on different issues, the number of visits being planned, the number of diplomatic meetings, and agreements signed. In the last few years we have signed a major agreement on Homeland security, anti-terrorism cooperation, agricultural relations. There are 28 centres of excellence where Israel helps with agricultural productivity, and Indian farmers benefit from our expertise. On water, the Ganga rejuvenation, we do projects with many states. This is the change in relations and not only what diplomats do at the UN. Don’t just count votes.



You spoke about anti-terror cooperation. Do you support the government’s idea that in a world where terrorists know no boundaries, it is necessary to cross boundaries to protect national security? The idea of “hot pursuit” discussed after the Myanmar operation?



First of all I would like to convey our condolences to the Army and the families of the soldiers killed in the act of terrorism in Manipur. We are two countries, one of a few that face the same threat: that our soldiers who are assigned to safeguard our national borders are attacked by such terrorism. This must be fought and condemned. This is a joint challenge for us. Hot pursuit is one of the ingredients of a new kind of battleground. For India in this case, as sometimes in Israel, we have to use a number of measures and hot pursuit is one of them. This changing battleground should see a different approach by world bodies to understand how nations have to deal with asymmetric warfare. The international community shouldn’t be cut and dry about what is right as defined only by the (UN) Human rights council. They should respect the right of countries to protect their boundaries, their values and I would say India knows a thing or two about values and democracy, and knows how to define its security, because that is the first and foremost responsibility of any government.



Are you suggesting, as some in government already have, that a similar kind of response could be used to India’s western borders, for example after the Mumbai attacks when Israeli citizens were amongst those executed by terrorists who came from Pakistan?



At the risk of being called diplomatic, I think there is a change in the field of terrorism, and countries are cooperating more on sharing information and investigations. We were very concerned when Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi was released on bail, as we follow the Mumbai attacks closely. We are a concerned party, and a victim of terrorism, including our diplomats who were attacked here in Delhi. So what we need is more cooperation.



You are speaking of an attack that you blame on Iran. Israel-Iran ties are problematic, yet India’s ties with Iran are very close. Ms. Swaraj is visiting Iran this month and India supports the nuclear talks (P5+1) with Iran that Israel has criticised. How do you see this?



Israel reacts, not to India’s ties with Iran, but to what Iran is doing in terms of developing nuclear weapons. It is not just Israel but Arab countries including moderate countries, and there is a paradigm shift in their thinking, because Iran is destabilising our region. Iran has proxies at our borders, and if you look at India’s communal violence laws, then what Iran does in Libya, Syria or Iraq, is fuelling communal violence. To give them military nuclear capability as this deal proposed in Switzerland is unexplainable. We hope the world powers will negotiate a better deal with Iran. India has been abiding by the sanctions set by the international community, and we appreciate that, but on a larger scale, we should look at the long-term dangers of what Iran is doing, not just tied to these talks.



To come back to India-Israel ties, what are the big agreements likely to be prominent when PM Modi visits Israel?



I don’t want to say only defence, but defence cooperation will be a big part of any visit. Also on high technology transfers, and joint R&D, not just on defence but agriculture, water and education as well. Water is going to be the next big thing in India-Israel ties, as Israeli expertise on harnessing water is reknowned, and we can do much more in India: in drip irrigation, desalinization, recycled water for irrigation. For example Chennai city now drinks desalinated water brought with Israeli help. Despite being an arid land, parched for rain, Israelis don’t have water shortages. I also hope we see more business ties being built during the visit, and renewable energy projects to be set up. Unlike other countries, Israel doesn’t bring large amounts of investment, but we can bring the important micronutrient of expertise. India and Israel are lacking in connectivity, and I do hope the PM’s visit will see more direct flights from Indian cities to the Holy Land, as many Israelis also want to visit the Holy sites in India.

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