Naor Gilon, Israel’s new ambassador to India, in conversation with Ullekh NP
Gilon is an engaging conversationalist. Inside his office in the well-guarded embassy on Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road, the 58-year-old diplomat talks about his love for Indian food, and historical and bilateral ties between the two democracies, besides a raft of issues. This is his third stint as ambassador, having served in the Netherlands and Italy earlier. Gilon, whose grandfather was sent to Auschwitz and father to a ghetto in Budapest, says that the approach of several countries in the Middle East towards Israel is changing, even as its relationship with India is growing exponentially 30 years after the establishment of formal diplomatic ties. Edited excerpts:
What are the personal highlights of your stay in India? What are the things that you love about India?
It is my third time as ambassador and it is the sixth country that I am serving as a diplomat. India is very unique and different compared with all other places I have been. In no country I had spent prior to this – inside Europe and in the US – did I see such deep friendship towards Israel and the Jewish people. I enjoy the warmth of the people here. There is a saying here that the guest is God (Atithi Devo Bhava). That sentiment – of wanting to see you feel good while you are in their country – is very similar in Israel. This is a similarity between our people and countries. Same is true of family values. Just as it is crucial in India, in Israel, too, it is very critical. And holidays are all celebrated around food. The centrality of the family and food in their lives is common to us both. I am very lucky to love spicy food, maybe because of my Hungarian origins. There is a large variety of vegetarian fare in India and I simply love it.
How do you look back at 30 years of Israel’s formal diplomatic ties with our country?
It is important to know that the relations between our two civilisations started more than 2,000 years ago when the first Jews came to live in south India. Waves of Jews came from the Iraqi region later. It is an acknowledgement of the plurality of India that some prominent Jews have lived here and the people didn’t know they were Jews. We did a mural show in Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk) to pay tribute to Indian-Jewish actors (Nadira, Sulochana and Pramila) who were Indian cinema’s pioneers, and nobody knew they were Jews. Same is true of Lt Gen JFR Jacob, David Sassoon (a Baghdadi Jew) and so on. They were treated and respected here as Indians. They just happened to be of Jewish origin. These people were a good start for a great relationship that came later.
In the First World War, 900 Indian soldiers who were part of the Anglo-Indian army of the time died fighting in what 30 years later became the State of Israel. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar came to Israel, they visited various monuments of significance to Indian people.
We were under the British mandate (unlike India, which was under the British Empire), and we both came out of British control. In fact, (the founder of Israel and its first prime minister) David Ben-Gurion looked up to Gandhi’s agitation as a sister movement. If you go to Ben-Gurion’s house where he retired, there is a photo of Gandhi inside.
Although India did not vote favouring the State of Israel, we opened an office in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1953. Official relations may have started only in 1992, but there was quiet cooperation between Israel and India, especially in the area of defence much earlier. We all know how Israel cooperated with India during the Kargil War when Israeli systems were used to fight off the enemy. Then there is solid cooperation between the two countries in agriculture. It was the visit of Prime Minister Modi in 2017 (the first Indian premier to do so) that was a major milestone in our relationship.
Was there cooperation between India and Israel in earlier wars as well?
Yes. Israel, along the years, worked together with India quietly. In the last decade, our relations have grown in all directions. It is not limited to any few sectors.
How big is the size of annual sales of defence equipment to India?
Again, I think it is a mistake to look at sales and money in our defence partnership. It is not about making money. It is much deeper. We also do joint training. The value of Israel is that it makes advanced technology in intelligence-gathering. What is more important than sales figures is the sharing of knowhow among countries with similar goals.
How helpful would Israeli defence systems like ‘Iron Dome’ be for India?
I will tell you our example, not about others.
Iron Dome is the stabiliser of the Middle East. It is the only system in the world capable of correctly intercepting short-range weapons. From the moment we had Iron Dome, we have had much less casualties. Once we have lesser casualties, we can recalibrate the reaction in a different way. If civilians are hit, the intensity of reaction will be very high. We have a definitive policy of retaliation, but if the casualties are very less, we can measure our retaliation. It enables us to choose a lower level of reaction. We now have more advanced systems to intercept such weapons.
It is important for us because we are under attack from all sides, but you don’t have such problems at the moment.
Of course, when the enemy knows that you have the ability to intercept his attacks and that his ability to harm you is less, it gives you a lot of leverage. It can reduce the ‘threat significance’ of the other side. India can also show the enemy that we have technological superiority.
How robust are Israel-India trade ties? It grew from $200 million in 1992 to $4.5 billion in 2014, and much more since then. What are your expectations of growth in bilateral trade over the next five or 10 years?
We are working on a free trade agreement. It will further boost our cooperation in products and services. There are more and more big businesses from India that are scouting for technology partners in Israel, especially those interested in EV and AI segments. Either they invest in an Israeli company or are buying technology. Growth has been happening along these lines, including in medical devices. We recently signed an MoU between an Israeli company and the Karnataka government to build semiconductor facilities in that state.
Unlike in the past, Israel is friends with some countries in the Arab world with which you earlier had strained relations. Do you see greater acceptance in that region for your country, going ahead?
In a way, Israel has had ties indirectly with several Arab countries. We have had food diplomacy with the Arab countries for decades. Even in the field of irrigation. They approached us, maybe, through firms registered in Cyprus. This was because they could not be seen as being friendly to us and having cooperation with Israel. Public opinion was poisoned against us. Now, what countries like the UAE and all have done is taken the relationship from under the table and put it above the table so that people can see it. They told everyone that they are not neglecting the Palestinian issue, but they also need to meet their people’s needs, and Israel can be a good partner in meeting those needs. They said, we are leaders of countries and we need to take care of the well-being of our people, and the Palestinian issue cannot be an obstacle to that. This is the big psychological change that is happening in the Arab world. This is a huge shift.
The glue that put them together with Israel is Iran. For years, the big divide in the Middle East was between Shia and Sunni sects. The Iranians have been destabilising all regions that were not under their control. Others are seeing it. Lebanon—where they wreaked havoc over decades—is very similar to Sri Lanka politically and economically. Iran is Shia, but they work with ISIS and Palestinians who are Sunni; and with Houthis in Yemen. This is why the other countries in the Middle East had a change of heart and decided to become close to Israel.
Israel, by the way, seems to have a soft corner for Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief in Lebanon.
The philosophy of Israel is that we want stability on the other side. If there is someone who is powerful on the other side, he will understand what Israel is capable of doing if it is attacked. If there is a mess on the other side, it is a problem. Lebanon has enough and more arms and ammunition at their disposal, but why are they not attacking us anymore? Because Nasrallah is strong enough and smart enough to understand that he cannot afford a war on Israel from Lebanon’s soil. I don’t like him, but he is a good partner. He is trying not to do anything from Lebanon. Nasrallah is now collaborating with Iran to build capabilities in Syria to attack us, assuming that we won’t target Lebanon for retaliation if such attacks happen. I am really not sure of that. We are not trying to impose democracy on any neighbor. We want a strong leader who understands us.
Which are the sectors, besides defence, in which Israel has been sharing its technological knowhow and expertise with India? How successful are these initiatives? What is your outlook on these programmes?
India is our biggest customer in agriculture technology. We have 23 centres of excellence where we help build capacities. The states put in the money and we offer the expertise. We are looking to expand. We have a plan to take the number of centres of excellence to 40 and we also have an agreement to cover 1,500 villages. We have cooperation with 12 Indian states so far and we hope to expand further.
India is friends with countries that are known to be inimical to Israel’s interests such as Iran. Yet, we have seen the relationship between the two countries deepen. How do you explain this paradox?
It is not a paradox. It is realpolitik. The approach of ‘my enemy’s friend is my enemy’ doesn’t take anyone anywhere. Iran in its immediate neighbourhood is threatening. Their approach to India is different. It is not a contradiction, therefore. It is smart international relations.
Many Indians are disturbed about the recent killing of senior journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank. How is your government addressing this incident? Will there be an international probe as demanded even by journalists within Israel?
We went to the West Bank to stop an attack. We are trying to be responsible about what we say until we know the facts. If you look at the Palestinian coroner’s report, it is impossible to be decisive about who shot her. But Palestinians are convinced that we killed her. We want to know we are giving the right reaction. We told them let’s do the forensic analysis of the bullet, along with the Americans and them. They are not ready. They are playing games. Her death was very unfortunate.
The Pegasus spyware sold by an Israeli private company has caused a lot of embarrassment. What do you plan to do in the future to avoid such incidents?
We have already taken many strict measures. NSO, the private company that makes the Pegasus spyware, developed its tool with the aim of fighting terrorism and organised crime. But we understood early on that it could be misused. Therefore, we put in place restrictions on its sales: that it can be sold only to government agencies. That is the bottom line of it.