In an interview, Israel’s ambassador to India Daniel Carmon says that since the Modi government came to power, ties between the two countries have acquired a much higher profile. He said an announcement on free trade talks as well as upgrading cooperation in water technologies could be the key outcomes of the visit by Modi, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister to the Jewish nation, that is expected towards the middle of this year. Edited excerpts:
What would be the major achievements of these 25 years?
I think I would look at the past 25 years as a process. You can look at the milestones through specific junctions, but I would prefer to look at the relations as a crescendo that goes beyond the political. They encompass many fields in the lives of our peoples and the governments which are governing the peoples. Namely safety, security—safeguarding the security of the territory and safeguarding the safety of the people—developmental challenges, which include the need for food, the need for water, health, and education which I would say is the more strategic target of our countries.
We have identified joint interests in these fields, and strengthened our relations in the traditional and the non-traditional ways. The traditional way is the general bilateral relations, there were some specific areas which received more attention—there was specific strengthening of relations in the defence sector—but it was not too visible which was part of the Indian policy at the time.
In the last few years—and I am not talking specifically the past two or three years—the trend and the process of strengthening relations putting in more ingredients related to development has seen a rise.
In the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of visits and high level political engagement, which hardly happened before. After a long time, there was a ministerial visit to Israel in 2013 but after 2014, there have been hardly any limits to the number of visits. The relations are very well positioned but we are still part of this trend which started very low key.
What do you think should be the focal points in the next 25 years in India-Israel relations to strengthen ties?
We should have more interchange between businesses, more trade, more development, the interchange of students, skill development, more demonstration farms, defence, innovation—Startup India and Start Up Nation (Israel) should talk to each other more; cyber security which is a global challenge. There is one point that maybe we haven’t stressed in the past years—the knowledge of each other. India and Israel do not know each other enough. Tourism is important in this. Strengthening the academic links, strengthening the cultural ties, having more students studying here (in India) and there (in Israel).
There is a perception that there is a lot going on in India-Israel relations but it is not publically acknowledged and it is all under the radar. Does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel bring the relationship out of the closet?
I don’t like to use the phrase ‘out of the closet.’ The two presidents (Indian and Israeli) have visited the other country. Prime ministerial visits when they happen, not only because of the visibility, send a message.
Those visits encourage the various players to understand that more things should be done in all fields—not only between governments but the business communities. When presidents and prime ministers visit and sign agreements and showcase the strength of each country, this makes the relationship tangible and goes beyond declarations. We have changed the traditional way of “under the radar" but we still have a way to go because we are dragging some baggage and some complexes from the past.
So what is this baggage?
The fact that we had to pay a price all those years to our joint will to have good relations. The price we were asked to pay was the price of low key. Because of Indian reasons. But things have changed and they are described in the governmental message that has been sent in the past three years more or less—saying that we (India) are committed to the Arab cause or the Palestinian cause, we are committed to good relations with Israel, that does not interfere with the other. This was not the case in the past.
So when does Modi’s visit to Israel take place? And when does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit India?
We are focussing too much attention on the dates. It will happen. One thing I would like to say is that the Jews of Indian origin—it is not exactly the Indian diaspora—but they are still very proud of their Indian origins and I am sure that any interaction of a high level official from India in Israel has to do with Indian origin Israelis.
What is the progress on the India-Israel Free Trade Agreement?
There has not been any progress in the past few months but I definitely see the FTA as one of the deliverables that come out of the prime ministerial visit when it happens. But there are still negotiations that have to be completed. There have been eight rounds of negotiations already. We are expecting a next round. I think it would do good to both countries to get this process finalised. It is a very important priority. There are other small programmes that we would like to finalise in the next few months—connected or not connected to the visit as such—in the field of innovation.
Will cooperation in water technologies be a major takeaway during Modi’s visit?
We have identified water as one of the major developmental areas we would like to concentrate on. Water scarcity is a major problem in Israel, we have been through tough times. But we have developed technologies in which are using every drop, educating our people...technology has helped us be able to create a water surplus in Israel these days. More than half of the water we drink in Israel is desalinated water. If you take the notion that Israel is one of the technological partners of India—we have shown it in defence, agriculture, innovation—we will be showing it in water too. There are pockets of Israeli presence in India in water technologies. I would hope for a major declaration in the area of water and projects that will substantiate the declaration on water cooperation.
How do you look at the fact that PM Modi’s visit is being billed as a standalone visit to Israel—not coupled with a visit to Palestinian territories?
I would like to look at the relations between India and Israel as bilateral relations. It is easy to attach it to regional issues and look at it in a global context but the content of our relations is such that what is highlighted in the relationship is the bilateral relations. We have strong and sound bilateral relations with a very defined content which is in the interest of both countries. And they do not involve other countries. So if the prime minister comes to Israel, he will come to speak about the content of relations and this is what will be highlighted. We know what India thinks about the Palestinian Authority or the will of the Palestinians to have a state of their own. Again, we do not have to agree on everything with India. India knows exactly what we think of Iran. And India hears from Israel what Israel thinks of Iran which is denying the right of Israel to exist and developing ballistic capabilities. There are concerns that are shared by the other side (but) the bilateral relations between India and Israel are exactly that—bilateral relations—and they do not involve others.