Israel's Ambassador Mark Sofer will shortly return to his homeland after a four-year-long, eventful stint in India.
This is a crucial time in Indo-Israel ties, as the two countries are all set to celebrate 20 years of their diplomatic relations in 2012. The financial, cultural and political ties between India and Israel have become firmer in the last two decades.
During Sofer's tenure, Pakistani terrorists gunned down a Jewish rabbi from Israel and his family at Mumbai's Chabad House, during the terror strike on the metropolis on 26/11.
India and Israel, which have both been victims to the horrors of terrorism, have strengthened their security and military ties. In the wake of 26/11, the two nations have also joined hands to take on terror together.
How did the Jewish nation respond to the 26/11 crisis? What are Israel's plans to fight terror with India on its side? Are the two nations with the world's most powerful armies planning a joint military exercise? And, on another plane, what is the road map for the Free Trade Agreement between the two nations?
Mark Sofer answered these and other questions on Indo-Israel ties and the way forward for the two nations, in an exclusive chat with Rediff.com readers. Here's the transcript:
dilmeshsingh asked, India n Israel have same concerns in many fields, its nice to see them co-operate, in ur tenure the relationship flourished more, r u satisfied, with ur tenure here ? or do u think u missed somethings?
Mark Sofer answers, at 2011-06-13 12:32:28Hi Dilmesh we do indeed have a great many similar concerns but as we are two democratic countries with a myriad of problems we have together found ways to cooperate immensely in many fields especially in the field of agriculture. In such a great country as India there are always issues which are unfortunately not dealt with enough. But i am leaving with a true sense of a burgeoning bilateral relationship between India and Israel.
Manish asked, Hi Mr. Sofer. How Israel can help india as both countries are facing same problem like unreliable neighbours.Both countries are target of Islamic terrorist and both are democratic countries
Mark Sofer answers, Hi Manish we both do indeed face problems of extremism emanating from our regions, yet both of us are striving to achieve peace and accomodation with all our neighbours. Unforunately, the continuous terror which affects us both cannot be dealt with solely through political means. Yet i believe that only negotiated peace with all our neighbours both in South Asia and West Asia is a central mean of reducing the threat of extremism.
hiddu asked, Sir, What r ur vies about ISLAM ?
Mark Sofer answers, Hi Hiddu, jews and muslims have always been cousins in faith. I believe strongly that the conflict in the middle-East is not by any means a religious conflict and history has proven that throughout the centuriesJews and Muslims have lived together in great harmony. The problem is not that of Muslims or Islam. It is of those who abuse and misuse Islam to achieve extremist political aims through means of terror. We have strong ties with so many of the Muslim community here in India and have found them all to be the best interlocutors.
donkey asked, Sir,Is it easy for Indian tourists to visit Israel considering the difficulties they face with the US/UK Embassy?
Mark Sofer answers, Tourism is indeed a great harbinger of people-to-people relations and we have tens of thousands of Israeli tourists who visit India every year. The number of Indian tourists to Israel is growing rapidly too and we invite each and every citizen of this great state to visit. We have opened visa centers in various cities around India to facilitate easier receipt of visas.You will all find Israel a country which is not only beautiful and unique, but also has a population which is enamoured with India and Indians and their culture and mentality.
GK asked, Dear Sir, Can you tell me please. Is it sin or terrorism if muslim fight to get back their own land?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear GK The situation in the Middle-East is highly complex and i am of the firm belief that it can only be solved through negotiations. Terrorism can never and must never be condoned. We have found that when negotiations are held in good faith and without pre-conditions they have proved highly successful. We implore those who believe that teh solution to the conflict can be achieved through violence and terror to think again. Israel has and will always have zero tolerance for fundamentalist terror and will never leave a stone unturned in order to negotiate an equitable solution to our conflict.
Alok asked, Israel was ranked 7th in the world in "Happiness Index". What is the secret especially considering that you are surrounded by so much unhappiness?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Alok Israelis are indeed a very happy people and to a large extent the unhappiness around us has been teh result of autocratic societies which have suffered at the hands of dictators. I have no doubt that now that the Arab Spring has started the peoples around us who are already feeling the fruits of freedom will join us high on the list of happy peoples.
Dib asked, Sir, What do you think will happpen in September if the Palestinians manage to gain "statehood" in UN without a peace treaty, and the govt includes Hamas?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Dib I truly hope that the Palestinians will not revert to the United Nations in order to score political points. The only way for them to achieve full and unbridled statehood is through negotiations without pre-conditions. The automatic anti-Israel majority at the UN will not bring the Palestinian people even one step closer to the statehood that Israel fully agrees with.
shalabh asked, Hello Mark. As an Indian, I congratulate you for the efforts you have put in to strengthen the Indo Israeli relationship. We believe that Israel is a great country and our natural ally. Good luck for your future.
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Shalabh Thank you so much for your warm words. I do believe that our relationship is going from strenght to strength and i am especially happy at our agricultural cooperation. Israel is a country which has pioneered innovation in the field of agriculture and especially water management and drip irrigation. India is a country with 700 million people dependent on agriculture for their livelihood and at the end of the day countries carry out diplomatic relations in order to better the welfare of their peoples. we pledge to continue and expand our cooperation in this sphere.
anilgoyal asked, dear mr sofer, the president of IRAN has said they will vipe israel off the world map ... what do you have to say about that.... considering iran may have a nuclear weapon very soon...
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Anilgoyal the Iranian people have contributed so much to world civilization and culture. Throughout the centuries Jews in Persia and Iran have lived wonderfully side-by-side and indeed many Iranian Jews have reached the highest echelons of Israeli society. The Iranian people are a people of moderation and goodwill. It is therefore doubly tragic that the current regime headeed by President Ahmadijenad is propounding nothing but hate and extermination of the worlds only Jewish State and denying the Holocaust as well as striving to achieve nuclear weaponry. However, the opprobrium of the international community towards this man of hate is overwhelming and Israel is by no means alone.
ManishG asked, The Mumbai attackers killed the Jewish Rabbi & his wife. They specifically wanted to kill Jews & western Targets. Why does'nt Israel take revenge from ISI. Mossad is the only agency in the world which can do it. Pls teach some guts to Indian agencies also!!
Mark Sofer answers, Hi ManishG Israel does not believe in revenge at all, only in achieving justice. We have nothing but the greatest appreciation for the way the Indian security forces handled the horror of the terror at Nariman House on 26/11. When civilised nations such as India, Israel and other forward looking countries of which there are truly very many, work together the scourge of terror can be eliminated.
Unnikrishnan asked, Dear Sofer, have the political change in egypt affected israel? and what will be Israel's future attitude to maintain peaceful relations with Egypt?
Mark Sofer answers, Hi Unnikrishnan The political change in Egypt is solely an uprising of men and women in the street against injustice and had nothing to do with the Middle East conflict per se. However, Israel wishes nothing but the best for the Egyptian people as they face a new world of freedom. I do believe that democratic societies can and do hold open and public debate within themselves and do not preoccupy themselves solely with placing blame on the other side. This is a wonderful recipe for moving the peace process forward and Israel will do all in its power to maintain peaceful relations with Egypt. It is tragic to see the dictator Assad in Syria using such horrendous force against his own people just to stay in power. I do hope that his time too will come soon and that the people of Syria will be freer to join those in the Middle East whose only desire is peace and cooperation.
saunder asked, Hello sir...how can isarael help india with its water problems, given its great expertise in this field?
Mark Sofer answers, Hi Saunder, Israel and India are indeed cooperating to the full on issues of water both G2G and on the private secotr level. We place all our technologies at the disposal of India and infact we are jointly developing India-specific water management solutions. These efforts are taking place in Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and many other states of India.
nik asked, Which industries are doing good in Israel , How can we contact them for buying goods from Israel do you know of any website to help exports from Israel
Mark Sofer answers, Hi Nik, Israel has transformed itself from an agricultural society to one which is over 80% based on state of the art technology and this despite us being totally self-dependent for all our food needs. I suggest www.export.gov.il/eng/ as the best site for trade related questions.
varghese asked, THE PRESENT DAY PALESTINES ARE NOTHING BUT ARABS WITH ETERNAL HATRED TOWARDS JEWS AND CHRISTIANS..
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Varghese, I do strongly disagree with your sentiment. Nothing could be further from the truth, to my mind. The vast majority of the Arab world, i believe is committed to peace in the Middle East and it is only a small and extremist percentage that is imbued with hatred. This includes the Hamas in Gaza, whose very charter calls for the murder of Jews (not Israelis) and who believe that Israel must be eradicated. Others include the Hezbollah in Lebanon and all these extremists groups, in a way our "Lashkar-e-Taiba", recieve material and political support from Iran.
Jebel23 asked, Where do you see Indo israel ties after 10 years? Do you think Indo - Israel can have military pact?
Mark Sofer answers, Hi Jebel23, Israeli-Indian ties have accelerated unbelievably in all spheres since relations were established in 1992. I do believe that we could enhance cooperation in such fields as alternative energy, and food processing. As a matter of policy, Israel never discusses in the public domain its defence cooperation, but i will say that if we have been of any assistance to this great country in meeting its security challenges, we are proud at having done so.
Hari Ram asked, Shalom Sir, this is very unfortunate that very little known about Israel in India. How we can get latest updates on Israel and its growing ties with India?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Hari Ram, We are making every effort to get Israel to be better known in India but as you are more aware than I, this is not exactly one of the smaller countries in the world! Do follow us on twitter "IsraelinIndia" and join our Facebook page "Israel in India". One thing I can assure you that no people are friendlier in the entire world towards India than the Israelis. There is only one thing for it, you just MUST come and visit. You will love every moment.
kadir asked, Is there any free trade agreement between the two countries considering the futures of India and Israel with a long term view?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Kadir, Israel and India are negotiating these very days a Free Trade Agreement and we hope it will finalise in the next few months. Our current bilateral civilian trade is 5 billion dollars and we estimate that this may well triple within 3 to 4 years after signing the FTA.
riteshh asked, Hi, I saw first time so much free space in press is given to a foreign envoy. Is there such freedom to press in Israel?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Riteshh, The reason why so much free space in the press in India is given to foreign envoys is because of the freedom of the press in India. Israel too has a completely free press and indeed your wonderful Ambassador in Israel, Navtej Sarna, is a frequent interviewee in the Israeli media. In general, there is so much goodwill between our two peoples that we have both found that all outlets in both our countries are open to us both.
ramaswamy asked, Sir, Why does not Israel agree to the plan brought up by Obama and buy peace and prosperity? For secruity territory conqured can be exchanged. But why Israel is reluctant to do so?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Ramaswamy, Israel is by no means reluctant to make the necessary compromises for peace. Indeed the entire peace moves which began in Earnest in 1992 were initiated with Arafat by Israel. The only way to bring about peace and prosperity is through bilateral negotiations, directly between Israel and the Palestinians. The premise of your first question is inexact. Israel and the US have nothing but the closest of ties and all issues regarding the proposals for Middle East peace are closely discussed between us.
Abhatt2 asked, Hi! I want to know the status of women in Israeli society? We do not see many women politicians there.
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Abhatt2, Israel has the strongest possible laws governing teh equality of women in society. Discrimination is totally outlawed and in civic society as well as government offices there is a strong policy of affirmative action. For example, there are women Generals in the Army, the Chief Justice of Israel and the head of the Opposition are both women, and we have a number of women ministers. However, Israel is not different from other democratic societies needs to do more to get more women into the highest echelons of power.
VimalPahuja asked, Hello Sir, Are you see India Israel as a natural allies, even better than US ?
Mark Sofer answers, Dear Vimal, India and Israel have so much in common that indeed we are seen by many as being natural partners. We both place at the highest value the family and education, we both have embraced democracy as a way of life since our inception in 1947 and 1948 and we both view development of the welfare of our societies as paramount. Moreover, anti-semitism has never ever existed in India as opposed to almost every where else in the world. Our relationship is relatively new but the dynamics of it are almost unprecedented. This is a work of art in the making.
Mark Sofer says, Dear Friends, I wish I could have carried on discussing these and many other issues with you for the next few hours. The interest is overwhelming if we only take the enormous amount of questions as a yardstick. I wish I could have answered so many more and I apologise to those who did not receive a response. My four year term of duty come to an end and I am truly saddened. This period has seen such extensive work in the field of culture including exchange of artists, musicians, theatre groups, literature and so much more. Our civilian trade has reached levels we could never have dreamt of and it is completely balanced. Our agriculture experts are working closely with their Indian counterparts on a daily basis and our joint scientific cooperation is booming as never before. I do, therefore, leave India with just a small smile of satisfaction on my face, yet with this wonderful country there is always so much more that can and must be done. Let us all pray and work avidly for peace and harmony in both our regions because as people of goodwill both Indians and Israelis will find equitable solutions for their problems for the good of their children and in order that future generations as well as in neighbouring countries will benefit from what we both have to offer.