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This is not the time to investigate origins of Covid but to fight it: Israel envoy Ron Malka

Speaking at ThePrint's Off The Cuff, Ron Malka stressed on the strengthening ties between India and Israel. Read the full interaction here.

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New Delhi: Israel’s ambassador to India Ron Malka said dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has enhanced cooperation and brought India and Israel closer. Speaking to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at an online installment of Off The Cuff, Malka stressed upon the strengthening ties between PM Narendra Modi and his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

Malka also said Israel has been able to flatten the coronavirus curve due to some “drastic measures” taken by its government.

He said it is now more critical to fight the virus than investigating where it originated and how it spread.

The ambassador added that Israel’s Ministry of Defence is collaborating with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to work on rapid tests for Covid-19 using various techniques. “We may soon bring good news to the world,” he said.

Read the full transcript of the interaction here:

Shekhar Gupta (SG): Many things are happening in the neighbourhood, but the whole world has only one concern — Covid-19. Where is Israel in its fight against coronavirus, how do you see the progress of vaccine development?

Ron Malka (RM): Israel has got full control of the infection. We realised in the beginning, that what we need to do till we get a vaccine, is to flatten the curve. Which is why we took dramatic measures. The number of active cases is rapidly declining, there are many more people that are cured. More than 7000 were infected, less than 2000 are active and 200 have unfortunately died and only 33 have died. We have started relaxing the lockdown we implemented. Schools are opening, offices are opening. We have relaxed the restrictions, but we keep watching.

If we have any leaks, where more people are getting infected, we will take the necessary steps but ensure the economy and livelihood keeps going on. As far as the process of the vaccine is concerned, our best technology, best scientists are working round the clock to develop a vaccine. There has been a dramatic progress by the IIBR (Israeli Institute of Biological Research), they have managed to develop three kinds of antibodies that stop the Covid-19 and prevent it from infecting the human cell. This will shorten the time that we need till we get full treatment. We are still working on a few initiatives to try finding a vaccine.

SG: So this is more of a treatment than a vaccine?

RM: Yes, this is a treatment. What we found in the breakthrough is the treatment with antibodies.

SG: At what level is it being tested?

RM: It’s in the process of experiment. It shortens the time we need to get a vaccine. In a few months time, we will have a full treatment for the vaccine.

SG: There is much talk about India and Israel talking about the fight against Covid-19. What is happening between our two countries?

RM: There is a lot happening. There have been many conversations between our prime ministers, cooperating, working together, sharing data and experiences, what the best practices are, whatever we can share to help each other. Together we are much stronger. Both countries nominated points of contact that connect the ministers of science and health in Israel and in India.

There are now more than 50 topics which we have tested to see what is the best one to cooperate on. Our minister of defence is cooperating with DRDO and the scientific advisor for Modi on a rapid test for coronavirus. Working together and sharing our best scientists, out of five nations that have gone to the moon, two are India and Israel. So what can be the scope of cooperation in science and technology. If we have rapid testing, it can dramatically change the world we live in.

SG: Will you tell us about how the rapid test works?

RM: The scientists found out that you can recognise the scent of coronavirus. So when people just blow, you test it with the right technology, you can know within a few minutes. This is one of the tests being done. Another one focuses on frequencies emitted by the coronavirus, some other measures to identify, there is a trans technology to harness the coronavirus. With the best minds in India and Israel working, I am confident that we will find a solution and many other initiatives.

SG: Israel is a country with a complex politics. How do you manage a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic when you have so much political instability? How does

RM: Even before the crisis, people kept asking me what will happen to the economy as the country is going for a third round of elections. But what is beautiful is that although we couldn’t form a government, the government that was there kept doing the work, the economy kept going, there were no big structural reforms. This is a vibrant democracy. We have even managed to get this crisis under control, we took measures that we don’t usually take. The executive got permission from the legislative and everything was supervised.

SG: We are so obsessed with our politics. In Israel, two parties fought three elections but failed to get a decisive result. Israel has a proportionate system in its parliament, depending on the percentage of votes you can form the parliament. Both set up coalitions, but nobody could set up a convincing coalition. Finally, both rivals came together to form a coalition. In real life, in contentious democratic politics, how do two rivals come together and run a coherent government?

RM: It’s a reflection of our solidarity and the way that we love our country and homeland. People know we may have different attitudes, we know to come together in times of crisis. This is what is beautiful about Israel. We cherish our independence because for 2,000 years we didn’t have it. This is why rivals put aside their differences and work together in favour of the country.

SG: You are a former soldier, and Mr Benny Gantz is the former chief of staff. What do you know about him? Have you worked with him? How is he as prime minister?

RM: Any soldier or officer that becomes the chief of staff of the Israeli defence forces must be a good leader. The one that gets to be chief of staff must be a talented thinker, one that is very mature and knows how to balance. He was the leader when we were having incidents in the north and south and he conducted things very well. We are talking about talented people that can do a lot, and are very gifted. I worked very closely with him and I know him personally, he is very impressive.

SG: Another thing I find interesting about you is that you’re a specialist on defence budgeting. We need to borrow you for some time here in India.

RM: Israel is open for you, we are always there to help. For example, when we make a budget, we differentiate between expenditure and investment. When you’re making a budget you need to know what is lost or sunk and what you see as an investment. Many principles of budgeting and best principles that we use, we share with India. The reason I was sent to India, is not for my diplomatic career but my other background just to share the practices and ways of thinking and this is how we enrich relationships.

SG: Are you worried that Modi’s stress on self reliance will hurt the thriving defence exports from Israel to India?

RM: What Israel and India are doing, defence-wise, are already moving towards self-reliance. What we do together and share together is self-reliant of both countries. Israel and India don’t compete with each other, they complete each other. For us to come to India, with our technology and experience and practice and work with Indian workers on Indian soil and export with them to like minded countries, is why our friendship is so good. It’s about cooperating and sharing, India and Israel together can build capabilities that exist now only in the superpower. There is unlimited scope of cooperation.

SG: So Israel is happy coming to India and becoming a part of ‘Make in India’?

RM: Yes, as I said, it’s about completing each other, there is mutual trust and respect between Israel and India. For us, Israel, it is a good opportunity to come and work in India, on Indian soil, for India and for the world.

SG: Israel has the tech, India has the scale, and they both have the entrepreneurship.

RM: With Israel’s scientific technology, and experience even from the battlefield, with counter terrorism, agriculture, water management, we bring our experiences. I have been in India for a year and a half, and there are so many similarities in challenges the two countries have faced and can learn from each other. The future is bright for us.

SG: What are the specific lessons India can learn from Israel in Covid management?

RM: We share everything. Whenever we have new guidelines and practices, we share first w India. India and Israel both released that dramatic measures are needed. The need to control the infection but allow the economy to go on. This is an ongoing process of learning from each other.

SG: Have you seen India’s security environment improve or deteriorate?

RM: As far as i see it, it has improved. India is a strong country. In terms of security, India is in a better position that it used to be but it is an ongoing process. And Israel is proud to be part of the process. For us, India is becoming a more and more important player in the international arena. India is balancing the world in its attitude and friendship values. For us to be part of the process is great.

SG: India has two adversaries — Pakistan, which is fine. But the other is China, so how does Israel manage that relationship with China?

RM: As I said, Israel is a small country, fully employed, surrounded by not very good countries. The relationship between India and China is purely economic. We have full control of the way we cooperate with and work with China. We control our developments very well and India knows that. So I don’t see any contradiction. For Israel, China is purely a market.

SG: When you say the relationship between Israel and China is purely economic, so what is the relationship between Israel and India?

RM: The strategic partnership is much wider, deeper and stronger between Israel and India. The scope of it is much bigger. As I said, two democracies with many similarities and mutual trust and respect, India and Israel are strategic partners, it’s one of our closest friends in the world. It’s a very open, known relationship and even China knows the relation with India is different and it’s understood. So it’s very well balanced, India for Israel is a strategic partner and a precious friend and is much more than economic relations with China.

SG: If you look at the political map of world, then from Israel of the Mediterranean and to India of the Bay of Bengal, then aren’t many full democracies like India and Israel.

RM: Exactly, that is what I am saying, two countries that respect the rule of law. I think that both that are democratic in this big area, it’s only very well understood that they come together in mutual trust and respect.

SG: How can you deal or can you afford the combined backlash from Muslims countries like Jordan, Turkey, Egypt? These are countries that recognise Israel, if Israel decides to annex the West Bank?

RM: First of all we need to see the whole perspective of the issue. It’s been many years since we got control of the West Bank. Not everybody knows or remembers how we got control of the West Bank. People should know that this territory is what is called the West Bank was used to launch a massive attack against Israel in our most vulnerable situation, when we were fighting in the two fronts- the North with Syria, the South with Egypt. We beat Jordan, who was then controlling the West Bank, they decided to attack Israel at the most vulnerable time, that’s why we fought back. This was a big fight with many many casualties and that’s how we pushed them back and got control of the West Bank.

From that moment of 1967, we did the best we could to find peace solutions and we were willing to negotiate but we didn’t find a counterpart for that. The Palestinians that were there refused to recognise Israel, refused to recognise our very right to exist. Few times in history we were so close for a peace agreement in 2000 and 2008 where we offered the Palestinians whatever they asked for almost 95 per cent of the territories and many many other things that they asked for, but they refused to sign the peace agreement. So, we say that we are willing to give a lot and sacrifice a lot for peace but we aren’t going to risk our very existence. Unless we get the measures for our security, we will not give back these territories. Until now the Palestinians are being stubborn, not willing to sit through negotiations and talking about annexing, it started after the US just offered what they called the deal of the century, which I think is a realistic plan.

Part of this plan is, I wouldn’t say annexing, but this isn’t the right phrase because you annex only something or some territory that belongs to a sovereign country. The West Bank has never been out of any sovereign states, it’s a territory of conflict but never a sovereign state controlled this area. A blind sovereignty — this is the right phrase that we should use in this issue. So part of this deal of the century is the blind sovereignty of those territories that Israelis already leave them, so not changing anything on ground, which is very realistic. Hopefully we will do it together after negotiating and coming to a compromise but otherwise one of the options is to do it unilaterally. Many many countries of the world are in favour of this deal especially as a starting point for negotiating and hopefully we will achieve this peace treaty.

SG: Does Israel prefer or does it worry about Nationalistic fervour which has taken over in many countries? With that you have seen the rise of right wing leaders all over the world including in Israel?

RM: We need to understand that nationalism for itself isn’t a bad thing. Nationalism isn’t against someone, it is in favour of my people. That’s the way we see it. So the rise of nationalism in the world we don’t see it as a threat. You can find your nationality and your self and unique identity and still cooperate with others in the world. It is a necessity, we need to work together, to get united and this is not a contradiction from nationalist. If you don’t define nationalism as against others, or patronizing others, but some that is in favour of your kind, of your people then it’s not something bad and we can accept it and get it and still cooperate and work together. Nationalism the way I see it isn’t necessarily anti-globalist. Just the way we use it, that we conduct things, and the actions and decisions that we will make now will shape the way that things will be in the future.

SG: Will you give me an example of good nationalism and not so good nationalism around the world today?

RM: Well it is very simple. Nationalism helps define someone else but in favour of my kind and my people, because someone wants to feel that he believes in such a group, which is like-minded. It’s okay, since it is not against anyone. It is just that nationalism is defined against or is better than others, this is wrong and not the nationalism that you want to see. In Israel for example, we aren’t against anyone, we are not patronising anyone, we are just saying that we want to keep our unique identity, that’s it. We are willing to cooperate and to share our technologies.

See what happened between Israel and Arab world. There was a time when the Arab world was considered as a mortal enemy of Israel but now you see that there is no conflict between the Arab world and Israel. It’s been more than 46 years since we last fought an Arab country. Many many Arab nations are becoming our friends now because they understand that it is good to be a friend of Israel since we are willing to share, to work together and to help. To share not only achievements but the mistakes we did on the way and to help because this is part of our world vision of making the world a better place to live in and to cooperate and share whatever we have with us. So this is a good way of being a nationalist and trying to say — Okay, I am different but it doesn’t make me better or doesn’t say that anyone else is wrong or not good or I should do this. No, this is not the way we define nationalism.

SG: How does Israel view China in the global context? How do you see this tussle between the US and China particularly with WHO in the background?

RM: Tensions are growing for sure, especially between US and China. They didn’t stop, remember the trade war and currency war. The tension between both countries is rising up and under this global pandemic I think that China now is in a very bad position globally because it is being accused, I am not saying that we have proof but I just said that people are accusing China for what happened and for not being transparent to the world.

We are still fighting this crisis, of course things are going to change and it is much much more related to the way that people would how much is it writing to blame China for what happens in this war crisis and how much is China ready to be blamed because I think China will of course answer these accusations and we will see what will be the impression of the world on if China should be blamed or not. I think this will change a lot – the balance and equilibrium forces in the war. So now we are underway in the midst of some changes that are still happening and we will still need to wait until the sand will sink and then we will see what will happen.

SG: In your and Israel’s view has China been sufficiently transparent or could it have been more transparent?

RM: We are focusing now in fighting the coronavirus, in trying to balance between the effort to get control of the infection and the economy and to how we can walk and leave this coronavirus until we find the vaccine. So we are focusing now on that. I, like you, I hear the articles with the news and media that are accusing and not accusing, I don’t know from that which is real but this is not the time to investigate. This is the time to focus on finding solutions for life and livelihood and as I said to manage and overcome this virus. We have enough time to see who to blame and see the consequences after this is over.

SG: Does the government of Israel have any plan to provide scholarship to Indian students with PhDs in Israeli universities especially in the field of Artificial Intelligence?

RM: It is a simple answer, yes, because what we realise and what we see, although we cooperate in education, it isn’t enough. The scope is much much bigger. So yes we are going to give scholarships in different avenues and programs to enhance the academic ties and the cooperation in education between Israel and India. I think both Israel and India appreciate education very much. I would say we built our country on education, we didn’t have any natural resources so we focused and invested in human capital which is especially education which later began to become innovation and creativity and so on so forth, that’s how Israel is a prosperous country, very successful economically but not only.

So, I think that education is something in which we can enhance cooperation. So we are going to work on many many programs and incentives that will attract students from India and vice versa. As you said before, I come from academia, my last position before I became a diplomat, I was a Dean in academia in Israel so I can say again that this scope of cooperation between Israel and India in academia is endless.

SG: There has been FTA between India and Israel for some time, how come we haven’t heard about it lately?

RM: Yes, the one that we had was cancelled by India but now are working on a new one. It’s a very advanced process because as I said generally about the economy, I can also say of trade relations India and Israel, not only do they compete with each other but also complete each other. There is no risk that Israel will flood India, we don’t produce anything but it is more about developing systems, technologies, we don’t have any mass production so you will not see any flood of Israeli products in India and of course we are willing to have products from India that we don’t produce. If we find a way where we can work and enhance the trade and expand the trade ties, it will be in favour of both India and Israel so we are working on that now. It’s underway and advanced and hopefully in the future we can announce a new way FTA between India and Israel. We are working on that very closely.

SG: This is in the works, not stalled?

RM: No, we are talking about products between India and Israel.

SG: I don’t think FTA has not stalled, it is in the works is what I am asking you

RM: Well there used to be one FTA but now we are walking towards this.

SG: What is the status of our defense and military operation besides buying and selling?

RM: Well, I can generally say that these are things we are not getting very specific with. But I can genuinely say that Israel is willing to share it’s experiences, achievements and technology whatever we can, because on the basis of as I said, mutual trust, and given that for Israel, India is a strategic partner we are willing to do a lot. We are working together in many many areas of defense, security, homeland security, cyber security- cooperation is there for all kinds of security — it’s an on-going process. The cooperation  and relations is very broad and open in many sectors.

SG: How extensive is the intelligence sharing cooperation?

RM: Of course, we share information. Information is a very vital issue especially nowadays, many many sectors fighting many many things. Take for example the coronavirus, we share all the information, the big data analysis that we do, so of course, information between two strategic partners and two close friends us something that is ongoing and I think it is great cooperation.

SG: I am talking on intelligence sharing of security, counter terrorism and things like that

RM: I would say that as for Israelis, the realm of war is focused on our region, so we know very well what happens in our region, we put our resources and sources basically on our region and our threats and you know about them. So whatever we can share is from our region and we aren’t interfering in other regions, we have enough conflicts for ourselves. As far as India needs any information to defend itself we are willing to share but we might not know enough about the other border conflicts that India is dealing with. We are not against anyone, we have enough conflicts of our own but when a precious friend needs help to defend itself, we are there and willing to share whatever we can.

SG: Between India and Israel there are no contentious issues I know except possibly one. So how do India and Israel skirt around the eye bird because there is a country whose name begins with that, a country named Iran and that’s where India and Israel have in many ways contrary views, because India has a traditional relationship with Iran and Israel and Iran have been at odds for some time

RM: I want to explain something about the relations between Iran and Israel. We Israelis have nothing against Iranian people. We very much appreciate them and I have a lot of sympathy towards them. The potential of Iran as a nation which is great of heritage, being wise, with so many achievements. It is only safe for us to say where they are now, they could be one of the world leaders in economy, science and in many many because the potential is unfortunately, think has changed since 1979. Until 1979 Israel and Iran were good friends. People don’t remember that. Even Iranian exiles that meet all over the world, tell me how many systems, water management, agriculture and other systems in Iran are still from Israeli technology. So it’s not about the Iranian people, it’s about this regime that sometime hopefully will understand which wrong it took and come back to the right path. We don’t have anything against Iran, just the fact that they decided we are their mortal enemy and then we needed to defend ourselves.

We don’t underestimate any risks especially when the country says that we’re their mortal enemy and will not rest until they annihilate Israel which is part of their vision, I would say if expanding the Muslim revolution all of the world and start with the Middle East. Some voices that we remember from the Dark age will hopefully change them. It’s about the regime not about the Iranian people. That is why we can understand each other. We can understand the attitude of India towards the Iranian people.

We can understand what happens between Iran and India and of course India understands that Israel, once Iran stated that aim is total destruction of Israel, that Israel needs to defend itself. We understand each other’s view and so given the fact that relations and friendship is so good, close and rewarding, we put that aside so we agree to disagree about Iran. Each of us conducts business according to his relations to Iran and hopefully this regime will change it’s past and be more considerate and provide for their own people instead of investing their money which they don’t have enough in thousand kilometres from Iran, will provide to their people which they deserve to get and will hopefully they will prosper and leave us aside.

SG: You are a good diplomat as well, I have to say that. Concluding question we are going away from politics, design, security, intelligence, coronavirus, everything, because you just mentioned water management. You said that before 1979 a lot of Israeli water management technology was used in Iran. Israelis are masters at water management, I have seen some of that you use every drop, you make every drop count.

Please tell us about your water management and how much of that you are doing in India with us because India has a strange situation, we aren’t short of water but we somehow always run short of water. Israel is very short of water but in effect never short of water.

RM: Yes so it’s basically a matter of management. The way you manage both part of equations, the sources and the uses. So what we did in Israel we enhanced the sources.

So first we enhance the strain and after that we design it and reuse the water. So we have more water, more supply of it. And then we use the water, we implement this measure, this technology, these systems that enable us to use water very very efficiently, as you said every drop counts. So working on both parts of this equation, now Israel has an abundance of water.

Israel is basically desert — 60% of it is desert and the rest is semi-arid area. The population of Israel multiplied itself 15 times since independence. We started with 600,000 people, now we are almost nine million. And still we have abundance of it. We have supplied water to our neighbours, to the Palestinian authority and to Jordan.

So all these technologies, all these water management practices are shared with India. And we got many many Israeli companies all over India. If you see the map of the footprint of Israeli Water Management Companies in India, it’s amazing.

You would think that Israel is much much bigger that what Israel actually is because how come there is such a big footprint of Israelis Water Management Companies in India. But India is big, it’s huge and it’s great scale, so there’s a lot to do. So I can also tell you that once the Minister of Jal Shakti was nominated and we were very blessed, we think it’s a very wise decision of the Government of India to constitute all the authorities of water in one ministry.

Even for us coming to share with India it’s much much easier that we have one point of contact so the first country the Minister of Jal Shakti visited came in and of course we planned a very very efficient visit for him. Exposing him to all our achievements in Israel so when he came to Israel with his staff and team, we shared with him all our achievements, all our technology, all our water management practices which is also regulations and guidelines and laws, and all the ecosystem of our dimensions, and also we shared the mistakes that we did. So you don’t need to commit the mistakes that we did because nothing is perfect in these kinds of processes, you understand that. So we also made mistakes. Like for example over pumping groundwater. We unfortunately poisoned some of our water resources because of over pumping and this is something that you can never fix after that. So this of course mistakes that we did and we shared it so you don’t commit these mistakes.

Fortunately most of our water resources are up the ground, not under the ground, not groundwater, so it wasn’t such a crucial mistake but still in India much more water is underground water so India needs to be much much more careful about the way they pump water and the way they measure water, contact water and of course purify water, and generally speaking manage both sides of the equations and uses. So we are here, we have our water experts that is a part of our staff, Israeli Water expert and agriculture expert, that is part of our staff in the embassy and that it’s going all over India and of course we are bringing experts from Israel to India just to share their practices, their technologies, all the ecosystem of managing water.

SG: Well you called Israel a small country but I do remember one of my early visits to Israel, I bought that T-shirt — very popular T-shirt — with the map of Israel that says “The tiniest large country of the World.”

RM: Yes, it is the tiniest country in the world. It is.

SG: Israel has influenced way in excess of its size.

RM: I can see as much as technology plays a bigger role in the world, small countries can project power and presence as if they are big countries. And I think now given Israeli is very advanced in technology, in science, now I would say we project much much much more presence than our real size. So this yes thanks to technology and the influence of technology, and importance of technology and also innovation. Because history shows those economists that focused on innovations are those that performed much much better than those that didn’t focus on innovation. So given Israeli is focusing on innovation and technology, it enables us to project a much much larger presence than our very size.

SG: You know on that happy and joyful note we have to bring this in conclusion where in Israeli and an Indian talk they can talk forever. Thank you very much for explaining such a brilliant conversation. Look forward to having you back in India soon.

RM: Thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you

SG: Thank you so much for finding the time.

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