Daniel Carmon, Israel’s Ambassador accredited to Sri Lanka in an interview with the Daily Mirror outlines the importance of bilateral relations and future areas of cooperation in the emerging world situations. Excerpts:
Q How do you look at Sri Lanka –Israel relations at the moment?
There have been many ups and downs in relations between the two countries in history. There are reasons that are not merely bilateral. As for the world situation, Sri Lanka was an important player of the non-aligned movement. During those years, the non-aligned movement suffered from internal dynamics. Like in domestic parliaments and politics, there were pressure groups. Unfortunately, in the past, the Arab pressure groups were very efficient. All want to play the game of being active non-aligned members and players. We had to succumb to the pressure, be it at the UN or anywhere. I have to say, that in the last two decades, the difference between ‘multilateral’ and ‘bilateral’ has broadened. Now, many countries that were players in the non-alignment movement can see the benefit of having bilateral relations in general, not necessarily with Israel. When looking at Israel’s relations with many countries around the world, benefits that it can bring to the bilateral table in terms of its capacity, technology, advanced agriculture, water management and treatment, agriculture, advanced health and education systems, make it an attractive country to develop relations with.
The other thing is, the structure of the Middle-East has changed. Around 30-40 years ago, when an Israeli leader or a diplomat walked into a room, the Arab counterparts would walk out in protest. Those days are gone now. Things have changed. We are now looking to a world that is not defined by religions - Jews, Christian, and Muslim etc. It is not Israel against Arab or vice versa. Nowadays, extremism, as we suffer in our region and all over the world, has been the major challenge to many. There is hardly any country or region spared. Our region has seen much terrorism. US President Donald Trump said in his speech some days ago in Saudi Arabia that the tragedy was not only Muslim extremism but also the fact that most of the victims were Muslims.
The world, including our region, has changed dramatically. We have a peace treaty with the major Arab countries - Egypt and Jordan. We all face the threat coming from Iran, a country which is a member of the international community. Iran is provoking, destabilizing our country and promoting terrorism. It is a country with the worst record of human rights with public hangings (executions) being common in the streets of Iran.
Now, things have changed. It is not what it used to be around 30 -40 years ago. Today, there are similar and joint interests. That is to fight extremism and confronting danger emerging from Iran.
Q In the past, Israel cooperated with SL in the fight against terrorism. How do you see the cooperation in the defence sector at the moment?
You are referring to the previous time. It was a different Sri Lanka. Now, Sri Lanka’s priorities are different. We adapt ourselves to our friends’ priorities. When we talk to the SL government or any other, be it a conversation on mutual issues and challenges, it depends. Nowadays, the priorities of SL-Israel relations are economic development, agriculture development and water treatment. These are things that benefit people. Of course, if there are other areas of priorities, they will raise it with us. We will listen very carefully and see what we can do. I would like to stress that it is not a matter of helping. We have a Joint Table. We discuss around the table on economic relations, promotion of business or projects. We discuss together with our Sri Lankan friends. We will decide what the areas and the activities are. I hate to speak about helping. It is joint venture or joint cooperation.
For example, one important aspect of our relations has something to do with thousands of caregivers and agriculture workers in Israel. That is actually one side helping and the other side being helped. It has to do with humanitarian interests, business interests. Remittances sent by these workers are an integral part of the economy here. It is a two-way process with both sides benefiting. It brings strength to the relationship.
Q How do you view the importance of SL’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean with the major world powers such as the US, China and India having interests?
That is an objective assessment. You did mention in your question that a few countries have shown interests. Each one has different angle of interests. Israel is a distant onlooker on this particular issue. Yet, we appreciate the efforts of the present government to have an economic resurgence. I am based in New Delhi. I visit SL from time to time. One can see the difference every time and those efforts have to be appreciated very much. We can be a partner of the resurgence of new Sri Lanka. There is a huge potential for attraction of Israeli tourists.
Q Recently, SL’s tourism promotion minister John Amaratunga said that there was a proposal to start direct air links between Colombo and Tel Aviv. How far have you progressed in this regard?
I have not heard about much progress. This depends on commercial consideration of companies. I can tell you that a year ago, there were interests by one company to operate chartered flights to Sri Lanka. It did not materialize for commercial reasons. I know it is on the table. The visit of your tourism minister was a very important one. People talk about it in Israel. The Israeli Tourism Ministry is reciprocating a visit. There are many more Israeli tourists visiting SL. That is a positive development.
Q There were reports that Israel was trying to put up its resident mission in Colombo. How true is it?
There is no plan to do that. There are reasons for it from the Israeli point of view. We have our own impediments in that regard. Our diplomatic service has diminished throughout the world. Unfortunately, we had to close down some of our missions.
Q There are so many resolutions being brought against Israel in the UNHRC. SL too faces so. How does Israel view the role of the UNHRC?
If you allow me, I will only speak on the Israeli issues. The situation in Sri Lanka is not an identical one. The proceedings of the UNHRC in Geneva are directed by two agendas. One is, solely dedicated to the Palestine-Israel conflict. The other is directed at the human rights issues of the rest of the world. Without any proportion whatsoever, the human rights in the world are divided into two. One is about Israel, Middle East and Palestine. The other is related to the rest of the world. This is unacceptable. Why was it defined that way? That is because of the automatic majority the Arabs have in those organs. They can pass any resolution that has something to do with Israel. Sometimes a resolution is not even debated. You have all the texts ready before your hand.
The UNHRC has been treating Israel in an unacceptable, irrelevant and unjust way. That is why the UNHRC lacks legitimacy to deal with Middle Eastern affairs. The UNHRC, with its apparatus constructed, is looking at the Middle East issues even before it is debated. When hundreds of people are killed in Syria, public hangings are taking place in Iran and women are denied their rights in some other countries, we cannot agree to the UNHRC dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue in such a disproportionate manner.
Q What is the kind of role Israel could play in getting the support of the western world to SL?
Sri Lanka is well aware of the international situation. It has made a massive effort and achieved many in the international arena, including the Geneva session. This is why, I told you that comparing the two situations was not the right thing to do. SL has had many achievements. It did not suffer from an automatic majority against it. The countries who care for SL are watching the situation. There is no need for Israel to play a role. I would concentrate on our bilateral efforts. In time to come, we will identify common interests and challenges.
Q There are allegations that Israel supports certain groups in SL to fuel tension between communities. How do you respond?
It is totally ridiculous. It does not even merit any response.
Q There is a support base in SL for the rights of Palestine. Does it affect Israel-SL relations.....
We are here to develop our bilateral relations. There is common ground for much cooperation in the field of agriculture and water. SL has a large labour force. We know how important it is to the local economy. We know how well received the local workers - caregivers and agriculture experts. We know how they contribute to the Israeli economy. It is a win-win situation. Anything beyond that is irrelevant. SL has good relations with the Arab world. It is not something that we should be disturbed with. The world has changed. It is not the world of zero-sum game. We have very good relations with several Arab countries. There were days when Arabs walked out when they see an Israeli diplomat walked in. We feel the warmth of the SL govt which understands that Israel can be a good and reliable partner. We have come here today during this difficult time of SL. We came here so quickly after hearing the devastation caused by floods. I am carrying the message of the President of Israel. We came with the words of sympathy and solidarity and deed which is our assistance. It is a proof of reliability that Israel is a partner of SL notwithstanding its relationship with Palestine and the
Within hours of the disaster, we decided to come and show it in words and deeds. I am carrying the letter of the President of Israel. This is our solidarity in words. We also bring our sympathy indeed. We will be providing emergency supplies - a dozen of power generators, hundreds of camp lights, water and many others. We came here with a large stock of emergency supplies last year.
Q SL abstained from voting at the UNESCO resolution ignoring the Jewish ties to Mount Temple. What is your stance on it?
We appreciate SL’s stance at UNESCO. A ridiculous and malicious resolution was put on the table by this organization. The text of the resolution denies the historical fact of the connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been in our minds, thoughts and prayers for thousands of years. The UNESCO cannot rewrite history. Those who had brought this resolution wanted to rewrite history. History cannot be rewritten. It will NOT be re-written. We appreciate the fact that your country did not support the re-writing of history.