Israel & India:
Conversation with Ambassador Mark Sofer
Recently, Israel’s Ambassador to India, Mark Sofer, answered questions about the expanding relationship between India and Israel, via a conference call organized by The Israel Project, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. Here are excerpts from his remarks.
SOFER: The relationship between India and Israel has blossomed. It started in 1992. Prior to that, it was a rather negative relationship, but it has undergone what can only be described as a metamorphosis. For example, trade in 1992, when we established relations, was about $180 million. I’m talking mutual trade and civilian trade. In 2009, we topped $4 billion in mutual trade and we’ve started discussions on a free-trade agreement; experts project a threefold increase within four years once the agreement is signed. So we’re talking $12/13 billion in a very short period of time. And I’m talking only of civilian trade. Also, the agricultural relationship, the cultural, even the political relationship has blossomed far beyond our wildest dreams. And India is a crucial player in the international arena. This is a relationship that has a great deal of value for both countries.
Q: Do you think India needs to come clean regarding its Middle East policy and its relations to Muslim nations?
SOFER: [India] has never hidden the fact from the Arab world that it has a strong, friendly and excellent relationship with Israel. And it’s never hidden from us that it has a strong and friendly and excellent relationship with the Arab world. I think it’s proof that this isn’t a zero-sum game; if you play your cards right, you can have an excellent relationship with both. We have to make a differentiation between the hype that is sometimes reported and the actual facts on the ground.
Q: What are the economic opportunities, specifically in the areas of clean tech, water conservation and tourism?
SOFER: India is a market and an economy that is growing at an enormous speed, and tourism from India to Israel is growing rapidly. Two percent of Indians are Christian, with a strong link to the holy sites – pilgrim tourism. Two percent, in Indian terms, is 30 or 40 million people. Israeli tourists come to India at an amazing pace. We’re talking about 40 to 50,000 a year, usually post-military.
Water conservation is probably the most important issue facing India today. In fact, many cities have water for maybe an hour a day, or even less in certain areas. It’s a crisis. We are working very closely indeed with India [using] new technology; The drip-irrigation system is probably the best ambassador that we have here in India. Wherever you go throughout India there are Israeli drip-irrigation systems We have the expertise. They have the human capacity to absorb this expertise and use it. Clean tech fits in the same way. We just had a delegation in India of 20 Israeli businessmen in the field of clean tech; and, the parliamentary delegation of high-level Indians that just came back from Israel spent most of their time in clean tech and water-technology facilities within Israel. If one can be beneficial in bringing sustenance to the man and woman in the street, at the end of the day that is the main issue in the bilateral relationship between two states; not the political issues, not the strategic issues.
We signed a memorandum of understanding between Israel and India in the field of agriculture in early 2008. And this is being implemented in the most successful way possible in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Maharashta, and now in Gujarat, in the fields of floriculture, horticulture and mango production. It’s building up centers of excellence – some sort of model farms – where farmers come from far and wide to learn about the new technologies that have been implemented in these centers of excellence with Israeli technology. This is, for me, the most exciting issue that we are dealing with here in India because it touches the very man and woman at the lowest level of Indian society.
Q: How do you envision the next 10 years in India-Israel space collaboration?
SOFER: We’ve had already a couple of [joint] launches of satellites. They haven’t been a secret and they’ve been published widely. We’re very happy for our cooperation. I don’t know how it’s going to develop. I don’t even know, to be honest with you, what Israel’s space wishes are, over and above the satellites, in the near future. But the collaboration is there; the cooperation is there. How it will develop, time will tell.
Q: At what point, if any, might we see India begin to support Israel at the United Nations?
SOFER: That’s something that we bring up with them a lot. It’s important to look at both sides of the coin. It’s true that the Indian voting patterns at the U.N., like a number of other countries, are not optimal. India has a number of constraints and I think we have to understand all of that. The other side of the coin is, if you look at what happened prior to 1992 and where we are today, it’s very important to remember that India … was at the forefront of the anti-Israel stampede in the ’70s and the ’80s. [Now], there is never an Indian sponsorship of an anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. and you’ll never find an Indian statement lambasting Israel. We have an extremely good cooperation with the Indian mission at the U.N. But voting patterns are not easy to change. I think they will happen. I feel strongly that the voting patterns are wrong. But I’m not sure that that should be the major factor in the India-Israel relationship.