Over the last one decade, the most dramatic improvement that India has had in relation with any country, it is arguably Israel. During much of cold war era, India had been less enthusiastic in having a warm relations with Israel, which changed in January 1992, when the two countries established full diplomatic relations. Since then there has been a steady strengthening of relations between the two countries. Despite being geographically distant, both share much similarity in culture, climate, value systems, agriculture, etc. Also, both countries have been sufferers of the worst kind of terrorism. Bound by a multitude of common interests, both countries are today cooperating on multiple issues that range from agriculture and irrigation to security and anti-terrorism. Israel has also emerged as one of India’s most prominent weapon suppliers in recent years. As countries with extremely high capabilities in information technology, both countries have been collaborating in start-up arena as well. To discuss further how the relation between the two countries can be strengthened, Anand Mishra, Editor, and Rajesh Mehta, Consulting Editor, ‘Governance Today’, interacted with Mr. Daniel Carmon, Honorable Ambassador of Israel to India. Edited excerpts:
You have mentioned that your assignment to India has been one of your best assignments. Could you share your experiences of India and your assignment here?
The assignment to India has been a fascinating experience for me. As a diplomat who has seen different aspects of diplomacy in different parts of the world, this assignment is special because it touches all aspects of life for people of both the countries. The relations between our two countries are not confined to governments or ministries of foreign affairs and statesmen, it relates to the lives of citizens of each country; farmers, technicians, engineers, organizations, as well as issues like food security, water management, security challenges that both face etc. All of these drive the relations between India and Israel and it is our mandate to lead and further these relations. This is why I am so satisfied with this assignment.
Recently, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel. How do you see this visit impacting the relations between the two countries?
It is the first and historically important visit which came after many years of the good and strengthening relations between the two countries. While the relations were established around 24 years ago, the visibility of the relationship had not been high because of several reasons, including the lack of political will. But over the last few years, there have been some high profile ministerial visits, especially over last one and a half years, and this visit of President Mukherjee would be a turning point. It has a high symbolic value as it is from the first citizen of the country. I hope this visit will soon be reciprocated by the visit of our President to India, which would send a good message to people, organizations, institutions and ministries that the relations between the two countries are growing and should be further promoted. So, I would say that this visit not only has a symbolic and ceremonial value, but also an important operative value.
How do you see the geostrategic challenges that both countries are facing currently and how do you think India and Israel can fight these challenges together?
Both Israel and India are situated in different geographies and are impacted by the developments in their respective immediate neighbourhood. But there is something that transcends the differences in size, geography and culture. Both India and Israel share common values, foremost being democracy; both have active, open, vibrant democracies. Both also share common challenges like security. We both have suffered in different but similar ways from the terrorism which is the plague of our times and we both share the will to fight. It has brought us together to cooperate and share our knowledge and experiences in our common anti-terrorism endeavour. A year ago, we signed an agreement to cooperate on anti-terrorism and I would say it is one of the important areas where India and Israel are cooperating.
Staying on the security issue, over the last decade or so, Israel has become one of the most prominent arms suppliers to India. How do you see the defense cooperation between the two countries going forward?
Defense has always been one of the main pillars of the relations between India and Israel. Not much has been publicly discussed about the defense relations between the two countries and both countries would like to keep it that way. I would say that yes, buying and selling of weapons is an important part, but the defense cooperation between the two countries goes much beyond that. Research and development is a crucial part of our defense relationship; we know and have confidence in each others’ capabilities. I would only say that both Israel and India are benefiting from the collaboration between the two countries in the defense field.
Not many people realize, but Israel has been helping India in irrigation for a long time. Could you let our readers know more about that?
I would prefer to call it cooperation instead of help because it is far from being one way street. It is our friendship and cooperation that is translated into areas of our interest including irrigation. We have developed certain capabilities over last few decades, which I call managing a ”Developmental Laboratory.” Since our independence in 1948, we had to rebuild our nation which we built through several challenges that all nations face. India is fighting its own developmental and socio-economic challenges. And Israel, as a friend, has been cooperating and sharing its experiences in areas such as water, irrigation, food security, science & technology, health etc.
One of our biggest projects has been Indo-Israeli Agricultural Project, wherein we set up centers of excellence in various states of India. Together with the Indian government, we are building such centers in over 10 states, which are working as training centers and demonstration centers showcasing Israeli technology. Farmers can come and see these technologies and learn how these technologies can help them improve crop productivity. We have tested the ‘more crop per drop’ technology in Israel and the same can be tried in India. For example, we can try applying our own marginal capabilities in improving the mango yield; I am quoting mango because India has experience of growing mango for centuries. Same can be tried with other crops too, such as citrus fruits, flowers, olives etc. So, along with defense, agriculture is a big area of cooperation. We are even getting into cooperation in dairy business.
What is the biggest challenge that you feel Israeli companies are facing in India today?
Well, this is for businesses to find out and to point out. But as a bystander, I would say that whatever we have talked about forms the environment of business cooperation. Businesses have to identify themselves to the needs of the society. Business is not just about taking decisions, sitting in India or in Israel. Businesses need to learn about the other side. You have to see what are the challenges on the other side, bureaucracy for example. You need to understand the demand on the other side. Does India need more on the agriculture or communication, or something which is not on the radar itself? Sending business delegations is not enough. You cannot ask for business right after delegation visits, you need to have patience. There is a different world when you move out of the airport in the another country and you need to be respectful of the norms and culture of the same. It takes time and there are no quick fix solutions. I feel confident that if businesses approach the other side with the right mind-set, we will all benefit from it.
Both India and Israel have a lot of start-ups. How do you think the start-up ecosystem of the two countries cooperate?
As a matter of policy, Israel has always had a good ecosystem of cooperation among government, academia, industry and the financial sector, with much push from the government. A few years ago, a decision was taken to provide active encouragement to start-ups, to enable them to take first steps; even providing initial money despite knowing that many of the start-ups do not emerge as companies. This risk taking is typical of Israelis who always look to accept new challenges in start-up space which has brought us the flattering identity of being the “Start-up Nation,” and we are very proud of it. India also has a similar characteristic. It is the nature of professionals in start-ups and IT space which strives to pick up an idea from the drawing broad and bring it to the stage where it serves a need, that is common to both India and Israel.
The two countries are relatively young, have rich and proud history and are both hungry to change the future. This can be seen in India as well as in Israel and it, therefore, makes sense to share the experience and learn from each other. What Indian side can bring to the table is experience and size. Many big cities in India, from Noida and Gurgaon to Kolkata and Bangalore, have their own cybercities with their own ecosystems of creativity and innovation.
And then there are big companies in India that are liaising with and showing interest in Israeli companies. Many of the Indian companies like Infosys have bought up some Israeli start-ups whereas conglomerates like Tata, Mahindra etc. are at various stages of partnering with many Israeli start-ups. One is already in the process of bringing an Israeli start-up in its own incubator in India. So, if Israel is the “Start-up Nation,” there is also something called up “Start-up India.” Indian and Israeli companies are cooperating in India, in Israel and in Silicon Valley. I think you heard our Prime Minister saying that in Silicon Valley you hear only Hindi and Hebrew, and a bit of English. You should look at the profile of Indians visiting Israel; the number of entrepreneurs and professionals in areas like IT, communication, start-ups, Innovation etc. has grown dramatically in the traffic between India and Israel.
How can we increase tourism between the two countries?
Tourism and people-to-people contacts are areas in which two countries should do more. It is definitely on our table. We don’t know each other enough. India does not know Israel enough and Israel does not know India enough. And when I say India, I don’t mean Delhi or other big cities in India. We at the Israeli embassy try to travel as much as possible. But we want to see more people traveling, learning, liaising, and having more students studying in each other’s country. I also would like more flights between the two countries. We have direct flights to Mumbai, but I would like direct flights to more north and south Indian cities. I think more people should travel between the two countries which would work to improve relations further, a relation which I characterize as friends, partners and allies.