In conversation with Pavan Kapoor, Indian ambassador to Israel, on Narendra Modi’s standalone visit, defence engagements between the two countries, India’s position on the two-state solution and more.
Tel Aviv: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s standalone visit to Israel should not be seen as a shift away from India’s traditional position supporting a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, says Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, in this exclusive interview with The Wire.
What was the biggest takeaway from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel?
It’s a very large aspect you are looking at, not just one takeaway. The significance really was of this kind of high level of engagement happening for the first time. So it was really for the first time that India and the Indian government was coming out in the open and saying we are your friends and we are your partners. Coming out at that level for the first time since we established diplomatic relations was the real significance of the visit.
Would you say the hesitation of history is now over with the PM’s standalone visit to Israel?
Definitely it is. There has been a buildup to this visit for sometime. Over the last two years, we have had high-level engagements. We had [former] President [Pranab] Mukherjee coming here in October 2015. We had [Israeli] President [Reuven] Rivlin return that visit in November 2016. And certainly this high-level engagement with the PM coming here is as clear an indication as possible that there is no hesitation to work with Israel openly and without any hesitation.
What progress has been made as far as the announcements concerned from setting up of joint working group to R&D fund ?
These are still very much a work in progress. The R&D fund is being set up. The money is now being made available to these separate accounts. Now there is a governing board that is to be created on both sides. That is in process. On our side, it is the department of science and technology. On the Israeli side, it is the technological and innovation authority. They are in the process of setting up this governing board and they will solicit applications from people in Israel and in India who can apply for funding for these joint development projects.
What kind of projects will be funded?
Technically, there is no limitation on areas in which people can apply for. There is a general feeling that whether it is agriculture, water, health or big data analytics, these are areas we should be cooperating in. So people can apply for funding to see how they can work on innovative technologies in these areas and seek funding for that, then they should hopefully be able to apply through this route.
In the joint statement issued during Modi’s visit, there was no direct mention of the two-state solution. Should this be seen as a shift in India’s traditional position?
No, I don’t think you should read it as a shift in India’s position. We will still be fully supportive of a two-state solution. I don’t think that is an issue and this was made clear by the PM even during the visit of [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas to India in May. Don’t think that there is a shift in that. Joint statements, you have to understand, are what you discuss with two senior-most leaders at that point of time. They didn’t get into this aspect in a big way. They talked about their concerns on either side and understood that these have to be dealt with. We do feel that the solution has to come from these two parties. That’s why the emphasis on coming to an early negotiated settlement, bearing in mind these issues that are important for both of them. We don’t want to get into dictating it but our support for the two-state solution remains.
While there was a paragraph on terrorism in the joint statement, there was no mention of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Is it because Israel accuses Iran of similar behaviour and Iran has not been named too?
You are probably reading too much into it. If we start listing every country or every issue that we discussed, that doesn’t really make sense.
Fact of the matter is that the joint statement is really focused on bilateral relations. The only element as it were is the Palestinian peace process. Otherwise, we have not talked about any other country’s problem. We have stuck to a concept of terrorism and if you read it carefully and put these sentences together, it will be clear that there is concern about all sorts of terrorism and there is strong reference to the support and finance of terrorism, providing sanctuaries to terror groups. You put that all together and it covers all aspects that both countries are really concerned about.
Palestinian leaders are reserved in their comments, but the Palestinian journalists, analysts and ordinary people I have spoken to are critical that India is moving away from its moral and ethical founding principles. How would you respond to these comments?
This is bound to be there. There will always be people who would not be happy with a particular approach taken. The fact is that we have reached a certain level of maturity in our relations and we feel confident that we can deal with our good friends the Palestinians and with our friends the Israelis and work with both of them independent of each other.
We are not wanting to look at them through the prism of the other and that is something we feel confident of doing. We are continuing with our projects, technical assistance, and we will continue supporting Palestinians wherever we feel it merits it.
That should in no way take away from the fact that we want to proceed working with Israel in areas that benefits both our countries.
On cyber security, India and Israel have very close ongoing cooperation. What more is in the offing? Is technological know-how being transferred too?
No, I don’t think so. Not as yet. We have had some good collaborations on B2B sectors so far.
On the G2G sector, we have just initiated a dialogue which started two-three months ago. And we are certainly wanting to take it forward so that we have more collaboration on capacity building side and look at how we can learn from each other. Certainly in this area India has a lot to learn from Israel, which at a certain level is much more highly aware of the concerns of cyber security and we hope we can get much more going together with their national cyber authority side.
On defence pacts there is a lot of hushed silence normally. There have been reports about Indian interest in Israeli drones. Could you elaborate on the defence engagements?
This is an ongoing collaboration. It is a demand from our side, supply from their side. Israel continues to be a good and reliable supplier of defence equipments for us. We are now wanting to emphasise and pushing – as our joint statement also very clearly points out – to focus on transfer of technology, and on the ‘Make in India’ aspect. We have emphasised to our Israeli colleagues that they can look to manufacture in India to lower their costs of production. Of course to meet their defence offset obligations but also while lowering their costs they can look at further markets for their products if they produce in India.
Can India be an interlocutor for dialogue between Israel and the Arab world given Modi’s relations? Has there been any such request or is there a possibility?
I wouldn’t want to comment on that.
Smita Sharma is an independent correspondent and columnist.
The author was in Israel to attend a Project Interchange seminar organised by the AJC (American Jewish Committee).