To be the Ambassador of Israel is not an easy job at anytime, but when there is international condemnation of your country’s action from friends and foes alike, it just becomes all the more difficult. Mark Sofer, the Israeli envoy in India, though is a level-headed man; affable, and one who likes to be in this country. He defends the flotilla raid on a Turkish ship by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) with complete ease and vehemence.
In a free-wheeling chat with Shashank Chouhan of Zeenews.com, the Ambassador presents his country’s side of events that has brought war-clouds over the boiling pot that is the Middle East. He says, Israel is not willing to tolerate any extremism, but will compromise for peace.
What prompted the IDF to launch a raid on the Mavi Marmara ship, carrying aid for Gaza?
We had expected that this ship, along with the others in the flotilla, would listen to our requests and respect our laws and bring aid through the regular channels. When they did not heed to our repeated requests, we had to try and stop the boat. Our soldiers were attacked when they landed on it- If there was anyone attacked here first, it was the IDF personnel. The footage shows that the extremists attacked us on this boat and that this was clearly planned.
But I am sure you had some intelligence about it?
We had, in fact, got information that these aren’t exactly peace activists, but didn’t expect that we will see violence on the scale that occurred. Our objective was not to stop aid from going to Gaza; aid goes there at any time and from anywhere. The objective was to ensure that the aid is not connected to weapons and drugs. Please don’t forget that it is Hamas which rules Gaza which has fired 7000 rockets into Israel in the last four years and their aim is to collect more weapons against us. There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza as such- of course the conditions could and should be better, and they will be once the Hamas decides that the eradication of Israel will not enhance the welfare of the people of Gaza. Until this war, which has been thrust upon us, is on we will have to fight it.
Won’t this raid go in the favour of Hamas?
Hamas is an extremist Islamist organization which wants to use violence to eradicate Israel. There is nothing there to talk to them about; it is akin to India speaking with Lashkar-e-Toiba .I don’t think the raid will benefit Hamas in any way. It will put focus on their violent streak, in fact.
In hindsight, do you think the situation could have been tackled better?
That I don’t know; I am not privy to the details of the operation. Of course, any death is regrettable. It wasn’t our intention to cause death or injury. Had that been the case, it would have been much easier for us to tackle those on-board without having any of our soldiers attacked. That wasn’t the idea. One hopes that extremists don’t enter the war zone like this again.
Were you shocked with the international reaction? Israel’s friends, including India, condemned the raid.
The reaction of the world was divided into two categories- one was the reaction coming from friendly countries like India and one from hostile nations like Iran. Our friends rushed to condemn the incident, because I think it was not apparent immediately what had exactly happened. We were nonplussed with their statement, frankly. We gave them our side of the story and the picture became clearer. Now the shrill voices have toned down. On the other side were countries like Iran, Sudan or Pakistan which were condemning Israel even while they have killed millions in so many years. Iran opened fire on its own citizens after its mock elections, in Pakistan where everything human rights is actually human wrongs- when I see these and other countries condemning our action, I think it is hypocrisy at its best. We don’t need to hear from them about how to behave.
Are relations with Turkey the biggest casualty of your action?
No, I don’t think so. Turkey and Israel have issues with each other, no doubt. It is an important country for the Middle East and Europe and it should not go down the wrong road. Turkey can play a mediating role and, in that regard, incidents like these may put things in abeyance for now. We would not think of attacking Turkish interests. The organization that was supporting the flotilla, the IHH, was itself banned until recently in Turkey. An extremist is an extremist is an extremist. Does anyone think that attacking Bin Laden, who is a Saudi citizen, is akin to attacking Saudi Arabia? So this should not be seen as an attack on Turkey. Those on the flotilla had the mentality of being shahids, they were saying stuff like ‘let’s kill the Jews’. Their nationality is irrelevant.
There are more boats on the way from the UN, Iran etc…what will you do?
We have seen Iranian boats in the past- they come with tones of ammunition and weapons. Iran has only one vision vis-à-vis the Middle East, which has been stated very clearly by the President of theirs, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that is wiping off Israel from the map of Earth. The man is a disgrace and traitor to the great Iranian people. These boats know they are not allowed and we will not let them enter Gaza (with determination)…Period. If there is any aid on the boat- which I doubt- it will be checked and allowed through UN channels only. The ball is not in our court.
If you really think your action was right then why do you object to an UN backed international probe?
We have constituted our own probe with international ramifications. You need to put this in perspective. Nine extremists were killed that day as they ignored our requests. The same day over 90 were killed in Pakistan. In Sudan also people were killed- no one asked for an international probe…
But they were internal incidents Mr Ambassador…
Well a death is a death and if it is being perpetrated due to the action or inaction of a government, then it should be of more concern. The UN has given knee-jerk reactions to every single incident in the Middle East. Not all people are objective, after all. However, we have nothing to hide. There was a political debate in Israel over this issue and what has come out has come out. We don’t need inimical countries to judge us.
Why are Israel’s relations with the US going down hill? You are known for deft diplomacy…
I don’t think the relations are going downhill. It has become conventional wisdom to say that the world hates Israel, but that is not the case. Public opinion in India, Russia, China is that of understanding towards Israel. We are very close to the US, but we don’t see eye to eye with them on every issue. Whenever government changes in US, there are expectations of change but basic tenets of their foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East remain the same. They want Israel and Palestine to live side by side peacefully. It is a difficult process of peace, but we know where we are going. There may be differences in approach though. It will need the help of the other countries also.
Were you shocked when US Vice President Joe Biden condemned constructions in East Jerusalem, when he was in Israel?
Not at all. Even the PM of Israel objected to the construction. Joe Biden has a right to opinion. He was the first to say after flotilla raids to not react before facts were known. He is a voice of sanity.
What is the status of the proximity talks with Palestine?
We are about to start the indirect peace talks soon and the US envoy George Mitchell is in the region for this purpose now. The question is why did this incident occur now when the talks were going to begin? I think this was a conspiracy to stop the talks and derail the peace process. The last thing that the extremists want is peace.
As far as the talks go, there are going on in a quiet way, and it is good because both Israel and Palestine have publics which have extreme views on the subject.
Gaza blockade led to a stop in direct talks with Palestine in 2008. What’s the way out?
I don’t think that the Gaza blockade is the main issue. I would like to know what the Palestinian Authority thinks about Hamas’ rule in Gaza and the situation which has thus arisen. The only objective of the Gaza blockade is to prevent Hamas from getting any weapons or funding for weapons. They are using all their funds to fight Israel – there are no calls for an international probe into that.
But the common man there is suffering…
It is true and unfortunately, in war situations, it is the common man who suffers. The people of Gaza are under thuggish leadership of Hamas, and they should not suffer for the organisation’s mistakes. It is crucial for Israel to eliminate as much suffering as possible of the people of Gaza. The people chose Hamas there as they did not have much option. The Arafat government was corrupt and ineffective as far as people’s welfare goes, so they chose Hamas. But a majority of the Palestinians don’t support the Hamas now as their polls suggest.
In India we have developed the opinion that Pakistan is a neighbour, that we have to live with them and so we need to deal with whoever is in-charge there…
I agree that we have to live with Palestinians and that is why we are talking to the PA. The more appropriate position would be that if some small parts of Pakistan were ruled by the LeT, would then the position of India be the same as it is now? It becomes difficult when the ruling clique indulges in violence- you can’t talk to them. There are enough pragmatic people in Palestine and Israel and they are talking peace. We will never have any truck with terrorists; extremists can’t be allowed to hold sway. World does not have luxury to appease them. We will compromise for peace, but not an inch for terror.
And what is the main stumbling block in the peace process?
It is a difficult question, but the answer is the following- paradoxically, the process of peace in the Middle East shouldn’t be very difficult. Pragmatic Israelis and Palestinians recognize that there is a problem as well as a solution, a two-state solution. We know the solution, the issue is how to reach there. There are various issues like Jerusalem, refugees, terrorism etc. but they are all details. We recognize, and I emphasise, that there is no military solution to the Middle East conflict, only political. But if there are organisations like Hamas supported by Iran then we will resort to military options.
You are living in a difficult situation where it is tough being a diplomat. How has it been for you, personally, particularly after the flotilla raid?
Well I wouldn’t call it a raid; I will call it an incident that happened. To be honest, there is a lot of understanding in India about fighting terror and about the will of Israel to make peace. I see that wherever I travel in the country. Indians understand, more than others, that Israel is a democratic society which is facing a difficult situation. Most Ambassadors would want to be in India. This is a country of a billion people and as many opinions and there are open discussions about the same here.
Coming to a different issue, there were reports that the grandparents of Baby Moshe whose parents were killed in Mumbai attacks haven’t yet got their share of compensation from the Indian government…
I am not aware of that. They haven’t approached us. They wouldn’t even come through us actually, and I really don’t know if anything like that has happened. But the gentleman has been very complimentary towards the people of India.
The trial in Mumbai attacks has just got over. Since your citizens were also attacked, are you satisfied with the outcome?
Well we have no opinion on it. You have an excellent judicial system which has come to its own conclusion and we have nothing untoward to say on the result.