In this Idea Exchange moderated by National Editor (Strategic and International Affairs) Praveen Swami, Israeli Ambassador to India Daniel Carmon talks about improving India-Israel defence ties, underlines the ‘threat’ posed by Iran — including to Delhi — reaffirms the ‘unbreakable’ bond with the US, and justifies the 2014 Gaza siege
PRAVEEN SWAMI: I will start with a topic that has dominated the news recently — the state of the relationship between the US and Israel. There have been a number of revelations — the leaked South African diplomatic cables, more recently the former head of Mossad has spoken out on Iran. What is Israel’s position on the nuclear deal with Iran that appears imminent? And what are your concerns if the P5+1 underwrite a nuclear agreement and the global community is comfortable with it?
The Israel-US bond is very strong. It is unbreakable, untouchable and I wouldn’t worry about it at all. It’s, without doubt, strongly embedded in our values, democracies, history, and the recognition of where both people and the free world should be going.
There is a discussion on how to deal with the Iranian threat. I want to pinpoint specially on the Iranian threat being a threat not only to Israel. Through history and now, Israel has been compelled to face new challenges. Ours was the first country to face international terrorism. Iran is a country that is posing a threat to the whole region and, I would even dare say, to the world too. It is a country with a rogue regime with rogue activities, and engaged in international terrorism. I have personally witnessed Iranian terrorism. Iran, through its proxies, planned, attacked and destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. I was there and I know.
Iran is trying to expand its presence in so many areas of our region in various ways. We have borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and we enjoy a peace treaty, but Iran is trying to be on our borders. Iran is also trying to acquire nuclear and military capabilities. This is the main reason our Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) went to Washington a couple of days ago to put on the table a wake-up call, saying Iran cannot be allowed to acquire capabilities that are unconventional. The international community knows it, it has set up sanctions against Iran — both on the UN Security Council side and the economic side. These cannot be lifted before a real and agreeable solution is set, and this is what the Prime Minister wanted to say and said it out loud in the US Congress.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: India is keen on an improved relationship with Iran as it is important for our trade ties with Afghanistan, and our wider interest in Central Asia. How do you see India’s relationship with Iran, and what impact does it have on India’s ties with Israel?
The relations between Iran and India are historical and go beyond the immediate politics. Our counterparts in the Indian government hear from us exactly what our friends from around the world hear from us — which is our point of view about the danger emanating from Iran. I can only guess that India is hearing the same message from a few other Middle Eastern countries which feel about Iran exactly the way Israel does. The world community is trying to get a diplomatic solution, and I think it’s right to do so, as it is a huge problem the world faces. Israel — and it is not the only one — thinks that it should be a good solution and not just a solution for the sake of saying that we have signed something and we are deferring the problem by 5-10 years.
COOMI KAPOOR: In the present Indian government, you have a powerful ally in the RSS. It’s said that the RSS had a hand in last year’s meeting in the US between the PMs of the two countries. Tell us about your relations with the RSS.
Our relationship has always been based on communication between Israel and India, not between Congress or RSS in India and Labour or Likud in Israel.
COOMI KAPOOR: But you do have relations with the RSS.
We have relations with all of Indian society, the various parties, movements and groups. I don’t have specific relations.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Last month marked the first-ever visit by an Israeli defence minister to India. At the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), he said that India-Israel defence relationship has largely been conducted behind the scenes. Why and how has this changed from ‘behind the scenes’ to being discussed openly? What does it mean for Israel and India’s defence relationship?
I accompanied the Defence Minister (Moshe Ya’alon) on this very important visit. He visited the air show in Bangalore, a very important event for us. The meeting at the ORF was no less important. The Defence Minister wanted to speak to people representing the society, scholars and journalists, not just talk with the Defence Minister of India.
Why was it (our relationship) behind the scenes? I think it was less visible. We usually do not talk about our defence relationship with anyone. For us, defence is something discreet. For the Indian side, you should ask them why they think it is better to have those relations behind the scenes. I attach great importance to the fact that it is still behind the scenes as it is in the interest of both countries. But it’s more visible and we talk about it more. If in the past, the projects or the sales, the contacts on the defence level, were a little more discreet, it’s now okay to speak about them. It’s a message to administrations in Israel and India that we are not shy or ashamed and we can go ahead.
PRANAV KULKARNI: Israeli Military Industries (IMI) continues to be blacklisted since 2012. When the Israel Defence Minister was here, was there any specific talk on lifting this ban, because the Defence Ministry has been talking about revising its blacklisting policy?
I heard about the policy. IMI is a respectable defence company. I know it has had problems in India. We have not received any communication either this way or the other. It is a very particular issue in something that is much bigger, which is the defence cooperation between India and Israel. I hope that if there is any Israeli company on the blacklist and there are parameters which would allow it to be taken off the blacklist, then this should happen as soon as possible.
The visit of the Defence Minister was centred around two things. (One was) bilateral relations at the political level, and this is why he met your press, the IAF, Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and the Home Minister too. But his visit was also to lead a delegation of defence companies. I will say modestly that at the Bangalore air show, 15 companies took part, and many had projects with India. After inaugurating and touring the Israeli pavilion, the minister went straight to the Indian pavilion. He was enchanted to be shown not only the capabilities of Indian companies but also the fact that there are existing projects between Indian and Israeli companies. The Defence Minister did not hear the ‘Make in India’ definition when he landed in Mumbai, on his way to Bangalore. He now knows about it and he has prepared himself to respond to this important reform by Prime Minister Modi.
*Rajgopal Singh: You talked about the good relations between Israel and the US. But there seems to be a clear political division in the US over its relations with Israel. Your PM was invited by the Republicans to the US Congress without the White House being kept in the loop. The White House even dubbed Netanyahu’s speech as rhetoric.
Our Prime Minister, the US Ambassador to the UN, and the head of the National Security Council talked about the important and crucial issue of Iran and the negotiations on one hand, and also the depth, strength, appreciation and thanks that Israel has, when it looks at the overall relations. Our Prime Minister described it as a discussion between members of the same family. Sometimes within a family there is a discussion, but if you look at the long range of our relationship, it is strong, sound and will continue being so.
Sumegha Gulati: A large section of the international press criticised the way Israeli military handled the situation in Gaza. How do you view that and Israel-Palestine relations in the future?
Israel has been compelled over the years to face new, unconventional kinds of warfare — the first hijacking of an airplane, the first bombing of a school bus, etc. What we have seen in Gaza unfortunately is a new way to endanger, confront and threaten Israel in an asymmetric kind of warfare. 2014 was not the first time terrorist organisation Hamas did this. We saw it in 2004, 2008, 2012.
I, without hesitation, put all the responsibility on Hamas because what the Hamas is or was doing is try to limit the capability and the right of a sovereign state like Israel to defend its citizens and territory. Gaza was overrun by Hamas, which took the legitimate regime of the Palestinian Authority and threw them out of buildings physically. Hamas became the ruler of this area, amassing hundreds and thousands of armaments and rockets in preparation for yet another round of hostilities in the same way they had done in the past. They did it this year launching rockets on Israeli territory, and endangering Israeli citizens using their own population as human shields. They launched rockets from within neighbourhoods of hospitals and mosques. This is the new asymmetric warfare we are confronted with. They’ve built dozens of tunnels through which they take Land Rovers, jeeps and rockets in order to use them in attacks on Israel.
I am proud to be speaking about technologies we have developed through the years. With the Iron Dome system, we have been able to intercept rockets launched to attack Israeli towns and cities. The obligation of the government is first and foremost to defend its citizens, when we have threats. This is what we have done, and I don’t think I have to explain to India what it means to confront terrorism. Because both countries have confronted terrorism in various forms.
Monojit Majumdar: There was a political context to the speech Netanyahu gave to the US Congress. The fact that he was given the stage to address a joint sitting of the Congress was also because of tension between President Barack Obama and his Republican opponents. It was also a very deeply divided Congress after that. How do you look at this clear divide within the US between political parties on an issue which really is, as the Prime Minister said in his speech, a global issue, where everybody should be involved because there are larger problems confronting Israel and the world?
I don’t want to get into the internal politics of Israel or the US. I would rather speak about the threats, policies, and the way we can together as a world community confront a global threat. But I do want to share with you a strong message of concern on what Iran is going towards. The data is there and people know how Iran has been acting all those years.
The Prime Minister said it out loud in his speech. He reminded the Congress members, he reminded the world, about all the events that Iran was involved in, specifically against US soldiers and personnel. Your question is valid, but I don’t have an answer for you. I am sorry about that but I think there are some things beyond politics, and this is the policy that the world should take.
History is more than a series of events. It is sustainable, long-range, and we cannot have a specific occurrence to break the trend of history. I am afraid that making a big mistake with Iran could have a historical effect.
Pranav Kulkarni: Do you also expect India to be more vocal on international platforms about Israel and its concerns?
I would like all members of the international community, not just India, to listen and say what is happening in the world. I think the international community, in its addressing of the Iranian issue through the years, is taking into consideration what the Iranian threat is all about. This is why we have seen Security Council sanctions, European economic sanctions, etc. The negotiators are now approaching the final line, and in the approach to it, we feel they are going towards a bad decision or a bad resolution. I am thinking and admitting there is need for diplomatic solutions. We don’t want to see a bad one because we don’t want to look back in 10-15 years and say there was a mistake that was made.
*Shashwat Ranjan: What does Israel think of a two-State solution?
Israel has been declaring it and our Prime Minister has said it and we will continue to say it, provided the time is right and especially the conditions fulfilled, because the time has been right for many years. Through negotiations and the political process, we would like to see, at the end of the day, two States living side by side with peace and security. But some conditions have to be met for this to happen. We are not there yet. There have been setbacks, like what happened in Gaza and the integration of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority government.
The UN and the (Middle East) Quartet have set a couple of conditions for Hamas or terrorist organisations or any players to be part of the process: recognise Israel, renounce terrorism and recognise the previous agreements between Israel and Palestinians. A terrorist organisation like Hamas cannot and does not do that. So we cannot have a player on the other side of the negotiating table that does not adhere to the most basic conditions set by the international community itself. When all the issues are resolved, when we go back to the negotiating table, when our counterparts will not be counterparts that threaten our existence, then we will get nearer to the two-State solution. A Jewish State in Israel and a Palestinian State in Palestine.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: What is the update on the attack on the Israeli diplomat in India? Has there been any forward movement in recent months?
The case is not closed. Again, I think, there is no argument on the Iranian part in this really horrific planned attack against an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi, a city friendly to Israel. I am sure the Indian authorities will be pursuing what has to be done in order for this case to be closed. But we have to remember that the danger exists here, in other capitals, from Iran’s engagement in international terrorism. Take this, take other angles of Iranian activity, put them together and draw your own conclusions, which will not be hard.
Transcribed by Somya Lakhani & Pallavi Chattopadhyay
* EXIMS students