Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election for the third consecutive time has aroused interest in India and around the world for various reasons. How would you describe the import or impact of his re-election on Israel, the region and the world? What does the electoral verdict mean for the international community?
We have gone through a very good election campaign, which is a reflection of a democratic country. I don’t have to tell you, the Indian people and your readers how important it is to maintain democratic systems and processes in which people elect the government and I think as far as Israel is concerned the re-election is a sign of first of all the concerns of the Israeli people on various issues that were at stake in the election. And I won’t go specifically into the internal Israeli politics because I represent the government and the people of Israel, so allow me not to go into the politics of things but I think continuity, stability and sustainability is what this new government will portray and send to the world as its main message even as Israel faces various challenges in a very complicated neighbourhood in which it is a part of. The message to India, I said it before the election and I am repeating it after the election, is one of India-Israel partnership and friendship; that we are partners and friends and we will do everything to strengthen it even more.
Netanyahu’s remarks in the run-up the election dismissing the probability of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and his apparently conciliatory comments afterwards have generated an intense debate in the region and beyond. What is the world to make of it?
I think that what we should be aware of is the fact that we are in a very complicated neighbourhood. Even as we speak, developments are unfolding. Unfortunately, the most stable thing happening in our region is instability. And when you go over the map of where the challenges are, when you have a list of all the challenges that Israel, an Israeli prime minister and the Israeli government has to face on a daily basis, each one of those 25 or 30 crises that we face in a day would be equivalent to the agenda for weeks to come for governments in other countries. The job of an Israeli prime minister or government is a very complicated one, reflecting the complexity of our region. Specifically, to answer your question, I’d like to reiterate that what is happening is that the reality in our region is changing; there is no change in Israeli policy. We still, of course, have to see the formation of the new government and for it to portray its policy through the regular procedure of our politics but our prime minister has already said that we are not for a one-state solution; we are for a sustainable two-state solution. So, l think, this says it all. He (Netanyahu) spoke about a two-state solution in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and he spoke about it a few days ago. And that is exactly what we have to be concerned and we have to be open and aware of the situation around us.
What can the world expect from Netanyahu as he begins another term as prime minister insofar as the West Asia peace process is concerned? The peace talks between Israel and Palestine have been in limbo for some time now.
I can say that first and foremost what the parties concerned — the people of Israel and our neighbours in the Palestinian territory — should see to it is that the negotiation restarts; that the ambience around the negotiations [is conducive]; and that the parameters that should be put in place should suit the reigniting and re-engagement of negotiations. Unfortunately, in the last period of time the parameters were not favourable for this. I can give you a few examples, for example, the fact that Hamas, a terrorist organisation, which did not and does not adhere to any of the international community’s conditions to be a part of the negotiations, is, unfortunately, a part of the government on the Palestinian side. Incitement that we hear and read from the Palestinian side is another of the conditions that is not favourable. When conditions will be right, what we should expect from the peoples of Israel and that of the region is to restart the negotiations but conditions should be there. As I said, the reality now in the region is a very complicated one and we should be very careful about what we are doing because we are talking at the end of the day our security, the most basic security parameters of our country, which are unfortunately challenged on a daily basis through events in the region.
In any public discourse about Israel, Iran is the proverbial elephant in the room, as it were. The Iranian nuclear talks are delicately poised. How does Israel view the progress in those talks?
I wish it were only an elephant in the room. Iran is not only an elephant in the room, Iran is a very real threat to stability in our region. If you would have this interview with others from our region, they would say similar things. Maybe the title on the rocket says Tel Aviv but there are so many others who are concerned about the threat (from Iran). Iran is engaging in international terrorism. We have seen it in New Delhi, Tblisi (Georgia), Baku (Azerbaijan), Buenos Aires (Argentina)…. In Uruguay, just a few weeks ago, an Iranian diplomat was seen outside the Israeli embassy trying to do something that probably has to do with a terrorist attack in the future. Iran is engaging in international terrorism period. Iran is around our borders. We have practically Iranians on our immediate borders: In Lebanon through Hizbollah and in the Golan [Heights] in Syria, which is a new front [for Iran] for some reasons. What are the Iranians doing in the Golan if not perpetrating instability? Also, Iran is helping Hamas and giving them the capabilities to do what they have done during all those years of launching rockets at our citizens. So, Iran is a very much on our borders and [here] I am talking about something physically. And the same Iran now is trying to acquire military nuclear capability. How do you think such a country, which is portraying instability all around using unconventional conventional methods, [would behave] when they will get unconventional unconventional weapons, which is what it is trying to acquire?
So, yes, there are negotiations; yes, the end game of the negotiations should be diplomatic; this is what the international community should aspire to. But the international community should aspire to a good solution. What we are seeing or fearing is that because they have a deadline and they [want] some kind of an agreement [by 31 March], if the deadline is there, it could be detrimental to a good agreement. So, maybe, the parameters of a good agreement should be set and a larger time table should be [set]. The international community should not [rush] as long as there is a good agreement and as long as, as the French themselves have said over the weekend, the Iranians do not have the possibility of obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. This is what should be [the outcome] of this exercise and this is what we think and feel the international community should be [working] towards and I hope it will.
Time table apart, has the progress of the Iranian nuclear talks given Israel any room for satisfaction at all between the time Netanyahu made the famous speech at the United Nations in 2012 (when he held up a diagram of a bomb depicting levels of uranium enrichment to highlight his concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme) and now?
The negotiations are very complex; they touch upon many issues and I don’t want to go into the details but what we have been hearing and from what we understand, this is going towards an agreement which is not the best that the international community should reach. It is going towards a bad agreement, which is worse than having just an agreement for the sake of having an agreement. Sometimes we have a feeling that having an agreement is the end game but what we are stressing, and we are not the only ones who are doing so, is that the international community should aspire for and press for a good agreement; because if there will be a bad agreement, in five, seven or 10 years the international community might wonder where it went wrong but it will be late; the train would have left the station by then.
How would you describe the state of bilateral relations between Israel and India in areas such as defence, security, trade and agriculture?
India and Israel are going through a very good time bilaterally. What was on our common agenda in the last 20-odd years is growing stronger. We have a very good defence relationship. We do not talk too much about this for both our countries’ interests . Israel and India have similar [security] challenges, including terrorism, but we have found a way to cooperate in a way that each country benefits from it and I can tell you without any hesitation that the national security interests of Israel and India have benefited from this partnership and this is the beauty of this relationship. There is a convergence of interests, which benefits both countries’ national security. We signed an agreement on homeland security (in 2014) and in the next few days we will have a working group meeting in New Delhi to implement it.
In agriculture, we have had a partnership for many years now. In the second phase of our agriculture cooperation, which is ending now, we set up centres of excellence in Haryana and other states. Each centre of excellence directly affects 10,000 farmers, be in terms of technology or products. We would like to go ahead share other technologies such as water recycling and desalination. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen in Gujarat, when he was the state’s chief minister, how the India-Israel cooperation in agriculture benefits farmers and how it can be replicated in more states. Mr Modi has talked about Israeli methods of irrigation and Israeli innovation in the areas of research and development and high-technology and I think Gujarat can be a good example for other states to emulate. Solar energy also is on the bilateral agenda.
We enrich ourselves and also teach each other because there is a lot we can learn from India.
Another manifestation of the good bilateral relations is the high-level visits between Israel and India, which has helped to improve the visibility of the relationship and the accessibility between them. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Israel in 2014 while the Israeli defence and agriculture ministers recently were in India.
We are now in the middle of organising an agriculture technology exhibition in April which will see a big Indian participation. So the bilateral ties now enjoy high visibility. We are not ashamed of saying Israel and India are doing a great job together. The fact that Israel has put India on top of its priority list of friends and partners says it all.
Are you satisfied with the pace of progress in the 2012 case pertaining to the attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi?
This is a judicial matter. As in any democratic country, it is separate from government. It is on the common agenda of Israel and India and it has to be solved and I am sure it will be solved.
Can we expect a visit to Israel by Prime Minister Modi during your term as the ambassador?
I certainly hope so. This should be the aim of both governments and as the ambassador I will try to make it happen.