'Israeli tech, know-how being transferred to India': Foreign Minister Cohen

He told THE WEEK that both countries have a lot to gain from collaboration

26-Eli-Cohen-with-Prime-Minister-Modi Warm vibes: Eli Cohen with Prime Minister Modi.

ISRAEL PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu has lauded the US-backed plan to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East, Israel and Europe as the “great cooperation agreement” in Israel’s history. Foreign minister Eli Cohen says the US-brokered Abraham Accords―signed in 2020―has brought Israel closer to the Gulf nations.

The scope for trade opportunities between our countries is huge. We should discuss [an fta] with bilateral relations in mind.

In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Cohen says the accords have also created exciting opportunities for regional and multinational cooperation. At the heart of this expanding cooperation (between India and Israel) is the Indian footprint in Haifa. Cohen speaks about an Israeli strategic asset like the port being in the hands of an Indian company, and also about Netanyahu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanting to strengthen the strategic alliance and sign a free trade agreement. Excerpts:

Q / How do you see the Indian investment in Haifa Port and its role in Israel’s integration with the Middle East?

A / Haifa Port is a strategic asset for Israel, and the fact that it is now put in the hands of an Indian company shows the level of trust and friendship our business ecosystems have in each other. The ultimate goal is to boost regional connectivity and increase trade opportunities in the region. We hope to see more such partnerships and collaborations take place between our business communities in future.

Q / What is the future of the normalisation of ties between Israel and Arab states?

A / The US-brokered Abraham Accords have been a game-changer in bringing Israel closer to the Gulf nations that share common values and mutual interests. The accords have created exciting opportunities for regional and multinational cooperation in energy, sustainability, tourism, security and much more. Increasingly, we are seeing deepening people-to-people ties and business opportunities. Israel aspires to continue this regional development that started with the accords and to expand the circle of peace and normalisation.

Q / Bilateral trade has increased but there is no free trade agreement yet. What are the challenges?

A / The scope for trade opportunities between our countries is huge and there is a strong desire to finalise an FTA that hopefully will further strengthen our economic ties. I believe the scope of the FTA is far larger than trade numbers. We should discuss it with the vision of bilateral relations in mind.

Q / How do you see the friendship between the two prime ministers? Is a visit by Netanyahu to India on the cards?

A / When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in 2017, it was a historic first for an Indian premier. His famous beach picture with Prime Minister Netanyahu became a symbol of deep friendship and close ties between our countries and leaders. The following year, Israel reciprocated with the visit of the prime minister to India. He shares a special friendship with Prime Minister Modi and believes the strong strategic alliance between the two countries is a significant partnership benefiting both nations. We hope to have another visit soon by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The agenda will be to explore ways to further boost bilateral relations in different fields.

Q / What has been a major milestone in the historic ties between India and Israel?

A / One of the major milestones has been Israel joining the Make in India initiative. Now Israeli technologies and know-how are being transferred [for manufacturing] in India. Further, Israel continues to be India’s strategic partner. Beyond the continuous dialogue between many government ministries regarding agriculture, water, health, education, innovation, technology and more, there are plenty of activities under way, including joint ventures led by our business sectors and various organisations. This continued expansion of the India-Israel bilateral relationship reflects the strategic alliance between the two nations.

Investing in the future: Cohen with students after launching an education initiative during his visit to India earlier this year. Investing in the future: Cohen with students after launching an education initiative during his visit to India earlier this year.

Q / Defence cooperation remains a hallmark of India-Israel relations. What is the next step?

A / The Indo-Israeli defence relationship has been a key pillar of the growing partnership. Our relations are based on three basic foundations: shared values, mutual interests and common challenges. With such well-synchronised defence cooperation, Israel was among the first countries to take up the call for the Make in India initiative and start joint projects with a manufacturing base in India. We have no doubt in Israel that R&D serves as a growth engine for the local industry. That is why we are willing to create more platforms of joint R&D to pinpoint shared challenges, discuss and find solutions together, and even manufacture them together. Both sides have a lot to gain from this collaboration.

Q / Agriculture and water are the other two key elements of this partnership. What are the goals?

A / These two fields are so important that we have appointed two highly trained Israeli experts―an agriculture attaché and a water attaché―who are continuously working on the ground in India, reaching out to Indian farmers on a daily basis. Together both countries have established 30 fully active centres of excellence across India. More such centres are in the pipeline. These centres are increasing farmers’ yield and productivity while diversifying local crops and improving the quality of produce. These centres will gradually be expanded into villages of excellence, in partnership with state governments in India, which will further prove beneficial for larger populations. We also have a flagship water project under way in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, to address the water challenges in the region.

Q / What is the vision of the mobility pact allowing Indian workers to work in Israel?

A / The vision is to facilitate and boost employment opportunities for Indian workers in Israel. The two countries are happy to collaborate to ease the process of arrival and recruitment of Indian workers. The mobility pact will also promote the protection of labour rights of these workers while working in Israel.

Q / Can you share the outcomes of the first I2U2 meeting in the UAE?

A / I2U2 has huge potential and brings new opportunities. It combines the strengths and resources of Israel, India, the US and the UAE to find innovative solutions to address some of the most critical issues of current times, including food and water security, energy and health. The formation of this unique group has been possible [because of] the Abraham Accords (signed in 2020). These accords have strengthened bonds between nations and people, and contributed to the security and economic stability of the entire Middle East and beyond.

I2U2 was first launched during the visit of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Israel in October 2021. Since then, we have worked with members of the private sector from within the focus industries to find the right projects to begin with in conjunction with the I2U2 meeting. A lot of work has already been done to start implementation of specific projects in energy and food security, bringing together our countries and companies to steer the work ahead and make the outcomes more efficient.

Q / Israel is one of the three poles of West Asia. How do you see regional security shaping up and the threat from Iran becoming nuclear-capable?

A / Iran has funded terrorism, called for the disappearance of the State of Israel, and continuously attempted to obtain weapons of mass destruction that will allow the extremist regime to carry out its plan of the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Middle East. The fingerprints of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard are all over the Middle East as well as Asia, Europe and America. Its terrorism reaches Lebanon through Hezbollah, Gaza through the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Syria, Yemen and more.

Iran undermines global security and threatens the existence of the State of Israel. There is no other country that is threatened by another country’s public calls for its destruction, as it pursues the development of nuclear weapons. Therefore, we need to emphasise: we will never allow Iran’s terror regime in Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. We are determined, and we will not hesitate to use all the means at our disposal for this purpose. We have already proved that we are capable of reaching Iran’s most hidden secrets, and I suggest that the Ayatollah’s regime does not test our capabilities. I call on the countries of the world: Iran is making the world a more dangerous place and is systematically violating human rights. Stop burying your head in the sand; it’s time to act.

Q / What are the terror threats facing Israel today?

A / In recent years, Israel has experienced a sharp rise in the scope of attacks originating from Judea and Samaria (West Bank) in general, and more specifically from Jenin. Fifty-two Israelis were killed over the past year [because of] Palestinian terror attacks, many of which were carried out from or within the Jenin area. A total of 290 terror attacks were carried out across Judea and Samaria in the past year. Terror organisations embed themselves in the heart of a crowded civilian population; they operate command and observation centres, and place weapons and missile storage facilities (some underground) directly next to or beneath civilian infrastructure.

Israel has promoted a permissive civil policy in the area, consisting of several civil and economic steps aimed at improving the livelihood of the Palestinian population and the local economy, as well as maintaining stability. Nevertheless, terror activities carried out by militants in the area have increased and continue to pose a security threat. Because of this continuous rise of terrorism in the region, the Israeli Defence Forces is operating in a direct manner against terror infrastructure, all the while maintaining routine security operations in Judea and Samaria. All IDF operations are conducted in a precise manner under consistent efforts to reduce harm to non-combatants.