New Delhi: India’s diplomatic relations with Israel are just under two decades. However, once the two countries decided to establish diplomatic relations in the aftermath of changes in the power equations in West Asia, the relations between the two countries have deepened rapidly. Mark Sofer, took over as Israel’s ambassador to India in 2007. His most testing moment came during the daring 26/11 attack in Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists who also targeted a Chabad House (a Jewish boarding and lodging place).
In an interview to Mint, Sofer spoke about the deepening ties, especially economic relations between the two countries. He says, according to experts, the volume of trade between the two countries would triple after the conclusion of a free trade agreement (FTA) which is under discussion. At the end of his four-year term in India, he also spoke about the shared challenge of terrorism, the prospects of peace in the Middle East following the Arab Spring and other issues. Edited excerpts.
How do you look at your tenure in India?
Without a doubt this has been the most rewarding period of my life. Our relations with India are so dynamic in every way. The economic aspects to it are at the forefront of all (that) we are doing together. We established diplomatic relations with India in 1992, less than 20 years ago. When we started this relationship, if we look at it in pure civilian trade figures, the trade was somewhere around $170 million (Rs 763 crore today). We have now topped $5 billion and, more importantly, we are now in the midst of negotiating a FTA. International experts say that with this agreement, trade will triple in the next three-five years—up to $15-16 billion and Israel is not a large country, we are about one-third of the size of Delhi… The trade is extremely balanced, we are both benefiting.
Have the FTA talks begun?
Absolutely, we have started FTA talks, in another few weeks we will be having the third or fourth rounds of negotiations; we hope to finish the discussions not in the distant future. It is very dangerous to put a date on such issues because these are very detailed negotiations—on import duties and customs figures and only experts can deal with them. I am fearful about making any prognosis about when it will finish... I do hope that by the end of this year and the beginning of the next we should be able to finish it. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations and I think it will be the perfect time to finish the agreement.
What about current bilateral investments?
We estimate that it is many billions of dollars in both directions…from what we see from the what is being bought here by Israeli companies in the areas of real estate, hospitals, farming, outsourcing. Outsourcing is very big for Israeli companies, in the fields of IT, telecom, healthcare products, but we haven’t begun to tap the potential.
Could you share some details of cooperation in defence and the fight against terrorism?
We don’t discuss this in the public domain. That is not to say there aren’t issues of joint concern not only to Israel and India, but to the whole civilized community—one of them is of course the issue of terror. We have seen here in India a brutal attack on Indians and Jews and Israelis—the Mumbai atrocity in 2008, which first and foremost affected Indians of course, almost 200 of them were slaughtered by terrorists coming in from Pakistan. But another country and people that were targeted were the Jews and the Israelis in Mumbai. So clearly there was something common, but it isn’t only us... It isn’t a question of one religion against another or one issue against another. It is simply a question of ideology of hate against an ideology of moderation. And clearly, we must find ourselves on the side of the ideology of moderation and clearly we are.
Recent disclosures made by 2008 Mumbai attacks’ suspect David Coleman Headley during his Chicago trial disclose that Headley surveyed Chabad Houses across India not just in Mumbai. Do you look at this in terms of a security threat to Israelis and Jews in India?
We have nothing but the highest respect and regard for the Indian security authorities. What happened on the 26 of November (2008) was an atrocity that no country in the world would have been able to handle in any other way. A simultaneous attack on five or six targets by dedicated terrorists is something that is almost impossible to stop. If somebody has decided, if a grouping has decided to slaughter people then they will always find a way… We place a lot of trust and goodwill in the Indian security authorities, we feel secure, I feel secure as the Israeli ambassador here, our staff feels secure and Israelis and Jews around India feel enormously secure. It’s a fact that there hasn’t been one minor drop in the number of Israelis coming here since the Mumbai attack as compared to prior to the attack. But that doesn’t mean that the threat has dissipated, the threat is still there and we must always be on our toes.
Has the killing of Al Qaeda figurehead Osama bin Laden affected or minimized the threat from terrorism?
The world is certainly a better place now that (Osama) bin Laden is no more with us. That is clear. Does that mean that terrorism has come to an end now that we have cut off the head of the snake? The answer is no. Clearly, there will be a continuation (of attacks). We are already beginning to see it. Incidentally, the Al Qaeda has its manifestations throughout the world. The Lashkar-e-Taiba is a manifestation of the Al Qaeda, the Hamas in West Asia is another. The threat is still there.
Coming to the ‘Arab Spring’—do you see it as an opportunity for peace in the Middle East or a challenge?
I am one of those who sees the Arab Spring as being a true opportunity—maybe not tomorrow—to move forward in West Asia. Clearly throwing away of the yoke of authoritarianism has to be positive. But we can see sadly what toll it is placing on the lives of innocent people. Look at what President (Bashar Al) Assad is doing to his own people in Syria… these are some of the people we have been living with. Not all of them have been entirely negative. Some of them have tried to move forward and the pragmatic people of the Middle East and the Arab world are forward looking, who have been taken over by such dictators like Assad or (Libya’s Moammar) Gadhafi or (Iran’s Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. That is not the people. The people want basic freedom like you or I have, they want to move forward into a new life... I do believe that since totalitarianism is going away from some of these regions, now that there is freedom of expression, there will be more public debate. And that is crucial to move forward.
Does Israel feel threatened by the changes in Egypt, the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in the November elections?
If that is the will of the people, then so it shall be. Democracy, as the adage goes is the worst form of government except for all others. If it causes difficulty in this or that in the immediate term, we will have to find a way of handling it… I don’t believe for a moment that Egypt will throw asunder the peace they have with Israel. It is not in their interest and they know it. These people are pragmatic. I don’t think they will throw asunder their relationship with the most important member of the international community the United States, which is giving them the most amount of aid to overcome economic difficulties that exist in a huge country… The Muslim Brotherhood is in itself not a monolithic grouping dedicated to a specific ideology. I think we need to see what happens, political parties are being set up for the first time. They have not had the wherewithal of independent political decision making. Things are very much in a dynamic mode and I think it is wrong to say what will happen.
How do you look at the Palestinian plan to move a resolution in the UN general assembly in favour of a separate state in September?
In all honesty I think this is a mistaken approach by them… It will only serve to pull us apart at this stage when we need to build confidence. I don’t think we need another automatic victory at this stage which will be Pyrrhic. It’s a victory on paper by like-minded states who will do anything or say anything that they are told to say. But will that change the situation on the ground? The answer is no.