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Q&A with: Israel’s Ambassador to India, Mark Sofer
By: David Zev Harris
September 1, 2010
Israel-Asia Center Q&A Series

Ambassador Mark Sofer was born in London. In 1981, he joined Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has since held diplomatic positions in Peru, Norway, New York and Ireland. He has also served as  policy adviser to then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and as Deputy Director General and Head of Central Europe and Eurasia Division. He was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to India and Sri Lanka in 2007.

Q: On a basic note, how’s life in New Delhi?

Amb. Sofer: Life in New Delhi is actually wonderful. You know that Israel benefits here from a very great deal of goodwill, in Indian public opinion, according to most opinion polls that have been conducted in the last few years. The goodwill towards Israel in Indian public opinion is greater than anywhere else in the world.

There’s also a great deal of understanding of the geo-strategic difficulties that we are in in Israel. India suffers to a large extent from some of the same ones, especially that of terror coming in from the outside and perpetrating from outside states.

But I think also there’s a great deal of goodwill which comes from the Israeli advances in those very fields in which India is most in awe about. I’m talking really of water management and agricultural issues. This is a country of 700 million people. They’re dependent on farming for their daily lives and new technologies, drip-irrigation systems and things of that nature are something which has great repercussions here in India in a positive way.

Q: So since you’ve brought that up, we’ll jump into the water-tech and cleantech industries. To what extent is there cooperation or is this very much a case of simple business – Israel has a product, India buys it?

Amb. Sofer: It’s not at all a question of business alone, although of course there is business involved as well. Companies such as Netafim or other huge drip-irrigation companies in Israel are very, very active here in India. As you know between Israel and India since 2008, we have been putting into fruition a memorandum of understanding signed between the two ministers of agriculture, which involves huge projects of setting up centers of excellence – basically model farms – for farmers in such states as Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, etc.

Here we’re talking about Israeli technology that will touch the lives of literally 200-300 million people. And so, in the one sense we have this bi-national agricultural agreement, which includes floriculture, horticulture, water-management systems, centers of excellence, mango harvesting, which is crucial in a country like India, food production, things of that nature are all included in this and going very well. It’s not only in the private sector, which of course is massive, but also in the government sector. The issue of involvement and cooperation between the two countries is really dynamic.

Q: Let’s change to a different sector but I guess it’s the same question. What about hi-tech?

Amb. Sofer: Well hi-tech of course is blossoming. You know according to the very latest figures published by the Israel Export Institute, the exports of Israel to India are now second in the world as far as our exports are concerned. The United States is in first place and India is in second place. This is something which is not very much known. We’re talking of a 110-percent increase just this year alone, the first few months of this year.

The biggest jump has been in the field of hi-tech and we’ve just finished here a visit from the hi-tech end of medical care, some industrialists from Israel. Bangalore being the Silicon Valley of India is replete with Israeli companies working there with the huge multi-national concerns of India such as Infosys, Wipro, etc. So of course we do see the future based on a hi-tech India being a country moving in that direction, with Israel being completely in that camp. And so this is one of the major thrusts of the economic ties between us.

It’s interesting to note if we’re talking just basic figures, that in 1992 when we established diplomatic relations between Israel and India, the civilian trade was $180 million of bilateral civilian trade and now we are over $4 billion, and it’s extremely balanced not like with other countries of the world where much is based on importing. Here it’s about $2billion more or less each way. So were talking really about an exponential and dynamic trading relationship. What is growing now and thought will grow even greater is the discussions we’re holding now with India on the establishment of a free-trade agreement between us, which according to international experts will triple the amount of trade between Israel and India within about four years.

Q: That will also presumably bring in fresh investment.

Amb. Sofer: Well, investment is a different issue completely, not only investment, joint ventures and also joint technology transfers. It’s difficult to know exactly how much investment there has been in India because as you know Israeli companies or companies anywhere in the world don’t have to tell governments exactly how much they are investing, so we are talking about estimates here of maybe $2-3 billion worth of Israeli investment in India in the last few years alone.

But it’s not a one-way investment process. We are seeing a huge increase in Indian investment in Israel, for example, the merger between NaanDan – the irrigation company of NaanDan – and Jain Irrigation, which is the largest irrigation company in India, is really very successful indeed. Pharmaceutical companies are merging and investment is actually a two-way stream. So we’re very happy about the economic interaction indeed.

Q: While we’re sticking with the business world, let’s have a look at another one where there is something in common, although in India it’s far more developed – and that’s the film or movie industry. Are here any possibilities of joint work there?

Amb. Sofer: Well, it’s something that we are trying to work on, but it’s not easy. First of all, the Bollywood industry, which is the most prolific film industry in the world, a film comes out approximately one a day or more in different Indian languages. It’s a very, very important market for us, because if we can get – and we are working on it – where there will be a Bollywood film filmed in Israel, then it increases almost immediately the tourism, because they are so popular in India that Indian tourists when they’ve watched a film which they like, they immediately flock to that particular country – Switzerland being the prime country that’s taken advantage of this. So, we are looking at it very much indeed, but I don’t think there’ll be that much cooperation between the Indian film industry and the Israeli film industry because they are rather different in culture and nature.

Q: Let’s move on then to another area, which is the field of diplomacy. How involved is India in what’s happening in the Middle East? Or is it something that’s not on its radar?

Amb. Sofer: Well, it is definitely on its radar. India is a growing world player. I think in the economic field, it is already a superpower…. For us though, however, the Middle East as a whole, politically, is not one of the centers of Indian diplomacy. They are not a member yet – I don’t know whether they will be – of the Security Council. They have a number of other areas which trouble them very, very deeply. Number one of course being on the list is Pakistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue, which is in their crucial national interest. And so much of their approach is down to that. They do have points of view on the Middle East. We don’t agree with everything they do and we interlocute with them very often indeed on the political level as well. But this clearly isn’t a primary source of interest for India in the same way that the Pakistan issue isn’t the first source of issue for Israel. We also have our own immediate and crucial national interests which are closer to home.

However, they are interlocuting with us and our neighbors and the Arab world. You know there are six million Indian workers in the Gulf alone. They have a very long relationship with the Arab world. But the relationship with us I think clearly is perhaps one of the most dynamic that Israel has in the world, and without being patronizing or condescending, I think it’s probably one of the most dynamic that India has as well because of the enormous changes that have been going around in our bilateral relationship on absolutely every level of bilateral cooperation between any two countries.

And I think underlying that is a meeting of minds on the technological level. I think underlying that are basic values of democracy, education, family values, and I think underlying that as far as Israel is concerned is the complete and utter total lack of anything which can be construed as anti-Semitism in India. It doesn’t exist. It never has existed, and they don’t understand why when you speak to them about anti-Semitism, why there should be such a thing as not liking Jews. It doesn’t figure on their radar screen. All this together does make a very good concoction.

Q: You brought me very nicely to what’s probably the last issue we’ll touch on which is Jewish-Indian relations, where your hat is representative of the Jewish state. Where are they at? You say there’s no anti-Semitism, but is there anything beyond that? We know that there was a strong but small Jewish community and communities in India, but they’re largely not there anymore.

Amb. Sofer: The estimate right now is about 5,000 Jews left in India, the majority being in Mumbai, Pune, etc. The larger community is Calcutta. There’s still a community in Amajerbad in Gujarat of about 200 Jews. But the largest communities have left – In Calcutta or wherever – there’s almost very few Jewish families left.

It’s estimated there’s somewhere between 80-90,000 Indian Jews living in Israel form the three main communities: the Cochini, the Bnei Israel and what’s called the Baghdadi communities. But the ones that are here are still functioning very strongly. Their synagogues are still here. There are I think seven or eight active synagogues in Mumbai alone. And again, they feel very open and no fear really.

In Mumbai of course there was a tragedy for them. It was a wake up call for India and the Jewish community. A wake up call from hell. But nonetheless, the Indians are really doing everything that they can. They see the Jewish community as a value, as a treasure, and they [the Jews] have always been treated very well not only, incidentally, by the Hindu community, which is the largest (about 80%), but no less important is the Muslim community of India which constitutes about 15-18% of the population here – somewhere in the region between 150-200 million people. The strongest strand of that would be Sufi Islam, which is very moderate, very open and even we as the State of Israel in the embassy here have extremely wide-ranging contacts with many leaders of the Muslim world here in India.

And so, I think that you would find if you look at the whole gamut of the relationship – including on the religious side of it, not only on the political and economic side – that things are really in good shape.

This interview was conducted by David Harris.

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