Interview: Will Modi Find 'Shared Values' in Israel or a State Giving up on Democracy?

With Narendra Modi visiting Israel soon, we ask ambassador Daniel Carmon about relations with India, the stalled peace process and the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

The interview was first published on June 21, 2017

Siddharth Varadarajan: Ambassador Daniel Carmon, India and Israel have completed, or will be completing, 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, and this period has seen the bilateral relationship grow in different dimensions. One aspect that hasn’t materialised yet is a prime ministerial visit from India to Israel, though there have been visits from Israel to India. This year Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make that first ever prime ministerial visit to Israel. From the Israeli point of view, what is the expectation from such a visit, especially one that has taken 25 years to fructify?

Ambassador Daniel Carmon: Well I think it’s a very good start to the interview, talking about how on one hand 25 years of official diplomatic relations based on thousands of years of relations between two ancient peoples who are very proud of their respective histories, very young people, we both attained our independence, ‘47, ‘48, from the British, we developed our countries one way or the other into different geographical areas, we have shared values that are common values, both countries have challenges, huge challenges. We have known to identify each others’ areas of concern that could be met by the other side in a vast co-operation, in what we call ‘growing partnership’. And what we have seen in the last 25 years is a growing partnership between both nations, between both governments, between both people, and I have to tell you that being a diplomat in India nowadays and being an Indian diplomat in Israel nowadays, is very rewarding and very satisfying because the joint table of relations between both our countries is rich, diverse and is based on wonderful success stories. Twenty-five years of achievement, looking forward to the next 25 years.

Varadarajan: Give us an example of a success story on the bilateral front. I know that in the public eye, defence and security cooperation are considered very important. We know there’s a huge amount of tourism from Israel to India, virtually every Israeli man or woman I think at some point in their life comes to spend a few weeks in India. There’s a lot of regard for Israeli technology, and culture and water management. What would you identify if you were to pick one or two things as good examples of a constructive partnership between India and Israel?

Ambassador Carmon: Well I agree with you about the perception that the defence relationship has been very important and substantive in their relations for both our countries and both our establishments for many years. It is true, it is based on fact. But it goes much beyond that. Again, as we have identified each other’s challenges in areas that are not only important to governments but to each and every citizen in our respective countries, we have not only identified the problems, we have done things to actually co-operate. My country attained its independence and we were engaged, and we still are, in nation-building. Nation-building also had to do with building a structure, building an educational system, agriculture, confronting challenges like the water challenges, security – we are in a relatively geopolitically sensitive and complicated area – and we have known to develop the capabilities in those various areas. I usually call ourselves in some way or another, a laboratory – a development laboratory, a nation building laboratory.

We have obtained some experience and some know-how developing solutions. We feel, and we have done it with many of our friends, we felt that 10 years after independence we were in a situation where we can join, we can share, we can bring this know-how, adapt it to various fields and various areas around the world. I have to say that with our very special and very unique relationship with India, we have been sharing for many years this experience in various fields.

You asked about a specific success story, I will tell you about agriculture. The world is speaking, for years now, about the development goals of the developing nations. We were part of the developing world, and we had to challenge and to confront those gaps and really start from scratch. In agriculture, for example, [what is] called in the international forum as food security. In the food security areas we developed techniques, productivity, we have bettered the livelihoods of our farmers, citizens, by putting technologies into the field, by using techniques in extension services, by training, by training the trainers and by having some involvement and some touching point between academia, research and development, and technology. And when you visit Israel you cannot believe that a few years ago it was a desert, Nowadays, half our country is still a desert, half is blooming and is producing the best produce  that our farmers can grow. And, talking about the success story, it was taking, cutting, adapting and pasting our technologies together with the Indian authorities– into centres of excellence all over India. We are talking about 15 centres in which crops are grown in the best techniques, with the best irrigation, drip irrigation, micro irrigation, and other techniques of covered agriculture. And one has to come and see those centres producing, flourishing, and some even selling the best produce ever. This is a success story. We have started with something, and I hope we will develop it into something much bigger in the future.

Varadarajan: When we speak of 25 years of diplomatic relations, it’s in a way important to also focus on what changed 25 years ago that allowed India and Israel to turn a corner, and in particular the government of India – which had a certain position or view vis-a-vis Israel, a view which embodied a great deal of sympathy and support for the Israeli people’s legitimate aspirations for a secure state, but coupled with a great deal of sympathy for the legitimate aspirations of the people of Palestine. It was in the context of the Middle East peace process, the Oslo accords, that India, like many other countries, felt confident enough to build diplomatic relations with Israel.

I mention this because today, 25 years later, if we review the peace process, there have been ups and downs and nobody would dispute, not even you, or anyone who’s a close observer, that we are in a very fallow period as far as the peace process is concerned. There’s been virtually no high level contact between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, it’s almost as if things are stuck, we may even be going back in many ways. What would you say to people in India who sympathise with Israel and the legitimate concerns of Israel and want India-Israel relations to grow but at the same time have the same feeling and concern for the people of Palestine? Why is the peace process stuck, and what is Israel prepared to do to get this process moving again?

Ambassador Carmon: I’d like to take you back 25 years ago or maybe more than that, to a world in which the perception was that you cannot speak with the Israelis and have good relations with Arabs or speak with the Arabs and have good relations with the Israelis. Those days are gone.

Varadarajan: Yes, fortunately, those days are gone.

Ambassador Carmon: Israel has a peace treaty with two important countries in our complicated region – Egypt and Jordan – with quite a lot of cooperation between those countries, very important neighbours. The architecture of our region has changed quite a bit with phenomena like international terrorism, with ISIS, with civil war in Syria and of course we still have an unsolved, very complicated issue that has seen quite a lot of advancements, you mentioned a few, of the elements of the process that we have gone through with our Palestinian neighbours. Visiting Israel, you’ll see how intertwined, how short the distance is – Jerusalem and Ramallah, you can see Ramallah from Jerusalem, it’s a couple of hills away. There is co-operation, you’ll be surprised but there is, between Israelis and Palestinians on the municipal level, on the water level, on some trade that is going on, not everything is so negative as it is sometimes seen. But of course, we have still a long way to go on the political side. It’s a long and complicated story but if I were to sum all of this up one issue would be of terrorism which has not been solved yet, the fact that the Palestinian authority – which are our natural partners for negotiations – have in some way or another not cleared the fact that some of their partners in the leading of the Palestinian people are connected to Hamas or specifically Hamas in Gaza, which is a terrorist organisation that doesn’t abide by the most basic conditions of the international community to be relevant partners, because they don’t recognise Israel as the Palestinian authority has, in the Oslo accords, and they have not renounced terrorism. They have not declared that they are renouncing terrorism. And having allies or partners that are still engaged in terrorism, is something that makes all negotiations more than just problematic.

Another issue has to do with the fact that the Palestinian side will not agree – not as a precondition but as something very basic – to the fact that Israel is a Jewish land, a Jewish state, a Jewish nation. Actually, they know it is but they will not agree to it as part of the negotiation, which is something very basic.

Varadarajan: I’m not sure – I mean, if India were to tell Pakistan that we’re an ‘Indian’ nation – what does accepting or not accepting that have to do with anything? I mean, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian interlocutors have many years ago accepted the principle – and very valid demand that you made – which is to accept Israel’s right to exist. So that issue should be settled, right?

Ambassador Carmon: Well, we could discuss it for many long hours.

Varadarajan: But you think that’s also an obstacle for you?

Ambassador Carmon: Yes. I would not call it a condition because it is even more basic than a condition. And what we should be doing, actually, and the process that we have seen in the last 20-22 years, left a few sensitive areas to be discussed as the permanent status negotiations. We have not gotten to this because of obstacles such as terrorism and denial of most basic rights. We’re always talking about the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, some forget that there’s another side to this conflict and peace process and you have to remember – you have not asked me about it – but bringing the issue to the international arena where our Arab neighbours and partners to the peace process have an automatic majority, forget the fact that we might not be 50% of the population in the Middle East, we are much less, I’m sure you’re aware that Israel has the huge size of 8 million people, but we are 50% of the solution and we have to be taken as such when we negotiate.

Varadarajan: You mentioned people visiting Israel. We have a classical music singer, T.M. Krishna, who visited Israel and Palestine recently to perform Carnatic classical music at the invitation of Prof David Schulman –

Ambassador Carmon: Wonderful!

Varadarajan: And he wrote a piece about the trauma he experienced, from Jerusalem to [Bethlehem], the visible distance you mentioned. And he said that the kind of humiliation Palestinians go through is not something that he, as a friend of Israel, was happy to see at all. And it brought to him the reality of what controlling an occupied territory does to the occupier itself.

I will add to that the recent statement that I read in the Ha’aretz by President [Reuven] Rivlin where he said that the new laws being envisaged to make settlement in the Occupied Territories even easier makes Israel, “look like an Apartheid state”. These are astonishing words from the president of your country. What would you say to those who argue that the continuous building of settlements – I mean you now have, for the first time in years, a censure from the Security council, December last year, 2334, which found fault with Israel, said it  was in violation of its legal duties under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and yet Israel doesn’t appear to treat the building of settlements as a problem, an obstacle.

So if, what you say, of Hamas and the PA not recognising Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ are ‘obstacles’, isn’t the continuous building of settlements in the Occupied Territories, in violation of the Geneva Convention, also a huge obstacle?

Ambassador Carmon: What I will say to you, and you are kind enough to quote from one side of the aisle but –

He is your president!

Ambassador Carmon: That’s fine but you did not ignore other statements. And of course we respect each and every one who does a genuine honest to God reflection of how he felt when he went from Jerusalem to Ramallah, as an example that you gave. What I will tell you is that we’ve been waiting for a real genuine peace process and from time-to-time we have detected real partners to the peace process. Unfortunately, some of those partners have gone wrong by going back to terrorism. And when I speak to an Indian audience and I talk about terrorism, each and every Indian knows what I’m talking about. It’s the same way with Israelis, there is no one Israeli who does not know a relative, father, mother, colleague, superior, or even a person at the shop, who is not affected one way or another by terrorism. If we want to go into a genuine peace process in which all the sensitive issues will be [taken on board], including all the sensitive issues. And there are five major sensitive issues that have to be talked about in the permanent solution status. Are we ready for it? I’m not sure. Not that we don’t want it, but some of the conditions that are around u,s including the fact that terrorism still prevails, are not making our situation mature.

You asked me about occupation and I don’t know if any of my people would like to be in the position of  so-called ‘occupier’. That’s not something that we have yearned for, but sometimes you have that geopolitical situation imposed upon you. And yes, terrorism is a major factor because it is not only words. Terrorism is deeds and acts and people get killed and wounded. And unfortunately, Israel has suffered from terrorism on a daily basis for many years. And yes, we have acquired the machinery and capabilities to counter terrorism and we are proud of the fact that we as a government can safeguard the security of our citizens. First security, coupled with efforts for peace, and you will see, we will get to it also.

Varadarajan: The reason I raised [the topic of] settlements is because well meaning friends of Israel – John Kerry, Thomas Friedman, people who for years have spoken out and you know, built careers in defence of Israel’s positions worldwide – are now saying that the more Israel persists with settlements, the greater is the likelihood that a two state solution will become unviable and Israel will have to choose, as Kerry said, “between being a Jewish state and being a democracy”.

Where does Israel stand on the two state solution today? Is there a clear position of your government on this or are we now in a situation where Israel is considering all options, including a one-state ‘solution’?

Ambassador Carmon: I think things are very clear. What we are yearning for, what we are expecting is to have a partner. Unfortunately nowadays the signs are not very positive about the relevance of the partner we have on the other side because of what I explained before. But yes, we are waiting for the right partner at the right time to sit around the joint table, and our prime minister has said it more than once, he’ll be ready to go anywhere to continue the negotiations, direct negotiations, without preconditions, without the pressure of the international community which has nothing necessarily to contribute to this conversation, which should be eye-to-eye between the leader who is not engaged in incitement, or with partners who are advocating and actually terrorising our people and yes, there will be concessions to be made on both sides, and yes, [the] peace process can be engaged and rebooted as they did before. We have good examples.

But why don’t we come back to India and Israel?

Varadarajan: Yes, we’ll come to that in a second. I just wanted to say that eye-to-eye conversations are great, but settlements can sometimes obscure the vision. But is the government of Israel optimistic? One of the great imponderables in international relations today is US policy. The entire world expected US policy under Trump  say towards Syria of going in a certain direction, but he surprised everybody with his air strikes. Is the government of Israel hopeful that Trump’s policies towards Israel, on topics such as settlements, will be different from Obama, and that there will be strong backing for the Netanyahu government’s stand from Washington, or do you think that US policy is now in a certain direction and is not going to change?

Ambassador Carmon: If you will allow me, I will refrain from giving my perception on something that sounds good and interesting but takes us away from the real problem. On the one hand – please look at what is going on in our larger region – not necessarily in the area of how the reaction is, it is a very important element, the reaction of the US, how does the US or other important players react, but to the action, not necessarily the reaction. Look at our region. Look at the way countries like Iran behave, destabilise areas. Ask some of our other neighbours, not only on those important points that you made, because you made some very important points, but look what is the danger nowadays in the larger Middle East? Not only in this piece of land that is seeing so many reports and reporters. It has taken the interest of the world as if it is the only problem around the world. No it’s not, look at the larger Middle East. Look at the dangers and the challenges. Look at Syria, look at Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and then look at Israel and the Palestinian territories also. Let’s put things into proportion.

Varadarajan: I think Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel will once again zero in on India’s interest in the entire region. Israel and Palestine is one aspect but as you said there are many questions of concern and interest in the wider region and we will focus on those. Hopefully once again we’ll have a chance after the visit of the Prime Minister, but that’s pretty much all we have time for today. Thank you so much for joining us in this interview.

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