Former Ambassador for Israel

ELS DISCOURSE Episode 3: Menahem Chuck Kanafi

Diplomacy and the Role of India-Israel Relations in Global Politics

Speaker Profile: Menahem Chuck Kanafi

Ambassador Chuck Kanafi. Ambassador Kanafi is a former career diplomat and advocate. He has served in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America at senior levels and has served as a legal advisor in the Israeli Defence Forces and to various diplomatic negotiations during thirty years of civil service. He currently acts as a neutral mediator for cross-border commercial disputes involving India, Israel and the United States. During his posting at the Embassy of Israeli Army, Mr. Kanafi served as a legal advisor of the government of Israel delegation to the negotiations for the establishment of the compensation fund for Nazi era forces and slave labourers, and was instrumental in achieving a ‘five billion euros’ settlement for the survivors of Nazi atrocities and establishment of a future fund. Upon retirement in 2015, Ambassador Kanafi established a mediation practice and qualified for inclusion of court appointed mediators in Israel and has since developed his practice as a third party neutral in commercial matters. He specializes in cross border disputes, involving Indian, Israeli and American parties. Thank you sir for joining us today. It is indeed an honour to have this conversation with you.


Saarthak Singhal: You have represented Israel and Germany, Turkey, Ghana and India, all very different places. What are the different challenges a diplomat faces while representing your country in various parts of the world with such diverse cultures and polities, especially if you are transferred every few years?

Many many levels of challenges. I think I should start with the most basic level, which is adapting to a new culture in which you find yourself. The major task of a diplomat is to communicate. You communicate your country’s policies, you communicate even on local negotiations for property, for instance for offices of the Embassy and similar things. You always always have to communicate, and in almost every country, there are cultural differences. Even if you are in a neighbouring country where everything is very similar, there are differences- different words have different meanings, and the first challenge is to basically keep your mouth shut, and to listen and not to speak. (Laughs) As diplomats, we are trained to speak, we go through media training and press work and social media training and so forth. Because we want to talk, we want to get our positions out there, we want to persuade; and really, you have to spend the first, no matter how much you study beforehand, you have to spend the first amount of time just keeping quiet and listening to people around you, from leaders of the country to leaders of businesses, to your own staff within the embassy or the consulate. That’s of course the first level of challenge.

The second level of challenge is of course then portraying and promoting your positions effectively because it also depends on certain countries. For instance, certain countries read a lot, like newspapers. In other countries you find that a large portion of their population is even illiterate and then you have to see how do you do that? How do you communicate? Do you do that on radio, do you do that on television, or do you do that on social media? There are countries where people do not have internet access for example, and it is meaningless to put things on social media, right? (Laughs). So it is finding the correct pathway to do it. And of course it is a question of phrasing, how you phrase things and at a deeper level, sometimes you have to advocate positions you don’t agree with personally. That’s a major challenge.

Finally, the last level of challenge is family challenge– most diplomats if you move, you move your entire family. When I moved to India, I moved with my wife and my children were aged about 12 and 15; and it is very difficult to move as you say every two or three years and try to adapt there to different cultures, different languages, different foods and so on, and I think that is how I will rank the different challenges in moving around.

Yashaswi Pande: In 2018, PM Modi made the first ever visit by an Indian PM to Palestine. Interestingly, this entire trip was coordinated between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. PM Modi also backed the idea of an independent Palestinian state. How does this stance of the India, and the visit, play in the relations of India and Israel?

I think first of all the relationship between India and Israel are much more multi-faceted than just one particular question. With every country, it is something like that. I think for many many years, up until 1993, up until the Oslo Records, the relations between India and Israel were not diplomatic relations. Relations took place at a consular level and at a trade missions level, sort of like that, and were mostly concentrated on that one question. The official position of India was to support Palestinian independence, and Israel was a rejectionist up until that point.

From 1993 onwards, Israel also recognized, even if it wasn’t in those particular words, but it intended to recognize a two state solution: Israel and Palestine existing side by side and in peace. That opened the door for diplomatic relations with India and our Embassy was established then and beyond that, it is not a strict game you know. If you support the Palestinian cause for statehood and forth, it does not mean you are anti-Israel. I myself was an Israeli diplomat and I absolutely think there should be a Palestinian state within the ‘67 borders, and the sooner the better. So, I think that was the big change in 1990s, from being zero (either you are pro-Israel or you are pro-Palestine), the possibility of supporting both emerged then, and I think that is in line at least with the official declared policies of the Israeli government. Whether the current administration supports the establishment of Palestinian state or does not, that’s open for debate, but certainly I don’t think that relations with another country could be judged on that scale.

You look back to a month ago when Israel established full diplomatic relations with UAE and with Bahrain and if you follow the news, the relations have been immediately taking off, know flight lines have been opened up, direct flights have been opened up, Israeli companies are already opening up in UAE a month afterwards and they are certainly backing the Palestinians and are in favour of Palestinian Independence. So that’s become much less of an issue and that’s the recent approach and PM Modi is existing in that Eco space, in that international climate where one thing does not necessarily rule out the other, and so he can be welcomed in Israel as he was, and he can welcomed in Palestine and I don’t think it affects the bilateral relations of either country with India.

Saarthak Singhal: India Israel relations have considerably improved under the current Modi government. To what factors do you attribute such success? (Discuss the significance of Alon Ushpiz who spent three years in India as Ambassador.)

I think the factors in play are much much larger than just individuals. You are talking about two states with established bureaucracies and with foreign policies that you can point to, foreign policies which are over administrations. Though denying that there is great affinity between the two prime ministers at this time… I think PM Modi gets along with Benjamin Netyanhu very well and vice versa. If there were some times, for example, there was no real love lost between President Obama of the United States and Netyanhu, everybody knows they didn’t get along well on a personal level and so when there’s a personal affinity and when something is going up and one of them can pick up the phone and say, “Hey, this is going on, I need you to do this” or “Hey, could you help me do this”, of course that helps. But, it’s not the overriding thing. Having said that, the appointment of Alon Ushpiz, somebody who clearly understands the importance of India-Israel relations, I don’t think he was appointed in order to promote those relations. Instead, I think he is an individual who understands Israeli foreign policy and understands what the priorities are and in that sense, he was appointed. Ambassador Ushpiz, I have to say this, I know him personally, we trained together many years ago, he was for most of his career, not all, but for most, posted at United States, which lets say is the most important Embassy for Israeli diplomats, and then spending most of his career there as a younger diplomat and then going to India sort of reflects the importance there. It is somebody who having served there, when given the chance to pick anywhere in the world to go, he picked for his Ambassadorial post to go to India and that reflects his approach and his view of that importance. As I said, it is more of a reflection of the Israeli approach to relations with India, rather than a result or a cause of that.

Yashaswi Pande: How momentous is the normalisation of relations between UAE and Israel and which aspects of bilateral relations according to you such a relationship would strengthen?

Okay, well first of all, we should be aware that Israel has had a certain level of relations with the Gulf States for years. We have had a mission in Oman, it is not open now in Muscat, in Doha, in Qatar and even in UAE, we had an office to the UN International Renewable Energy Agency and the leadership of UAE and Abu Dhabi was willing to permit that there be Israeli representation with an Israeli flag on their territory. It wasn’t an Embassy to UAE at that time, but it was there. Business: certainly, you could not travel to the Gulf States with an Israeli passport but a lot of Israelis had a dual passport and I think on an unofficial level, if you are talking about security services, contact and things like that, there was definitely co-operation because the geopolitical situation in the Arabian Sea, and so those relations were there for years. A lot of critics of what happened… nobody is critical of establishing relations with UAE and Bahrain, but there are critics who said that they shouldn’t have made such a big party about it, because it was just putting an official stamp on what was there already and beforehand.

I like to tell this story also, I was passing through Dubai, in the airport, a few years back, on my way to India actually, and the Duty Free Store in Dubai is full of Israeli wines. (Laughs) So… in the country which supposedly has no relations with Israel and where alcohol is forbidden, it was pretty amusing to see that. But that’s the sort of thing I mean. These wines were available at the airport, amongst other products, and that’s a sign that the relations are there. However the visibility element is definitely important and it sends a message all over. It sends first of all a message to the other side, like what I said, the fact that you are pro-Palestinian does not make you anti-Israeli and that sends the opposite message now, the fact that you have relations, does not mean you are abandoning Palestine. That’s number one. Up until recently, Israel only had full diplomatic relations with Jordan and Egypt, out of the Arabic states, and now we see that that’s changing as well. Because supporting one does not mean that you are rejecting the other. So that’s one aspect.

The second aspect of course, is that the unofficial and informal coalition against a common security threat (Iran). We know that the Gulf States have their difficulties, security difficulties with Iran, as does Israel. We do not have a common border, some of those states share at least a sea border, if not a land border. There is no denying that the United States is involved as well and trying to put together this loose organization, it’s not really an organization but a block or something, having a large bunch of like-minded states in contact and co-ordination with each other.

And the final aspect, which is probably the most important, at least from where I’m sitting right now, are the economic relations. They existed up to a certain point but now they’re really taking off. Dubai is a world financial centre, a world business centre and if you’re not there, you’re not anywhere, you don’t exist. So, there are possibilities for Israeli firms to be working there, be represented there and to have access to this international financial community that’s sitting there. Israeli firms and interests are present in New York on Wall Street, in Singapore, and other world financial centres, including Mumbai but not in Dubai. Come on! (laughs)

Maybe in the future we can see some issues of energy, but it’s not developing its own natural gas resources. Of course, the Gulf is important in terms of gas and oil and we don’t know how necessarily that could play out, but there is a possibility there. Just to go shortly without going into it: Israel has a pipeline between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and it can cut costs for energy, i.e., liquid gas and oil, coming from the Gulf and not having to go through the Suez Canal. They can dock at the Israeli port in the Red Sea, it is transported by pipeline to the Mediterranean and then to Europe, which is the major consumer of energy in the Eastern hemisphere. I’m sure that definitely plays a role, Israel being a transit country for energy as Israel is not a big consumer of energy. That possibility presents actual tangible savings (as opposed) to sending a tanker through the Suez Canal; some of the tankers are too big and they have to go around and that’s an issue as well.

Saarthak Singhal: A follow-up to the earlier questions, can Saudi Arabia too be expected to normalise relations with Israel soon, and if not, what are the general impediments to the same?

First of all, I want to say that in the writings and scriptures of the Jewish tradition, from 3000 to 4000 years ago, it is said that in the modern day, i.e., now, prophecy has only been given to children and idiots. I’m not a child anymore and I hope I’m not an idiot! (laughs) So, I don’t want to prophesize about relations with Saudi Arabia!

On the one hand, it is clear that for countries like UAE or Bahrain to enter into full diplomatic relations must have come after getting a green light from Saudi Arabia, it’s impossible that it didn’t happen that way. Not only that, up until last month, Saudi Arabia did not allow planes with Israeli registration or planes which were bound for Tel Aviv to cross through Saudi airspace. I’m sorry, that was about a year ago. Then India was permitted to fly across Saudi Arabia, but not the Israeli airlines. Now they’re permitted, the ones flying to the Gulf, Etihad or Emirates etc. So, if they’re changing a position they’ve held for 70 years, it’s clear that there was an implicit thumbs-up for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, if you’re talking about open diplomatic relations with Saudi, I’m not sure. As I said, I’m not a prophet. Saudi Arabia is still the steward of the Arab League Peace Plan for the Middle East, which involves the establishment of a Palestinian State as a pre-condition. I think that officially, Saudi Arabia may continue with that sort of a policy, while as I said, permitting aircrafts, encouraging countries around to be in good relations and to facilitate those relations where possible. Of course, I think the Israeli government would love to see Saudi Arabia as a full partner with an embassy in Riyadh and so forth, even for religious purposes, for the Hajj. Israel has 15 to 20 percent Muslim population of Israeli citizens and to facilitate those people to go to Mecca, just on that level, has pretty large economic implications for Saudi and for us (Israel) as well.

I don’t think it’s (full relations) happening anytime soon, but in terms of a quiet normalization, I think it’s already underway, as we can see, and what exactly happens along the way in terms of business and so forth remains to be seen. I personally don’t think that at this point full relations would be established. I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Saarthak Singhal: Is there a hesitancy to publicly embrace Israel in predominantly Muslim majority nations fearing a domestic public backlash, despite the political leadership indicating a willingness to for a closer relationship, like in the case of Oman and Bangladesh?

I don’t know, there are certain levels, of course. At one level, there’s opposition to Israel’s existence, some other level is perhaps the opposition to Israel’s conduct vis a vis Palestine, the occupation of Palestine and not agreeing to independence and so forth, which is a lighter level.

First of all, it has to be said openly, that it depends on the nature of the regime and the given State. The street in Egypt has pretty much been opposed to peace with Israel since 1979, since the Peace Treaty was signed. But, there has been a distinct policy decision made by the leadership that peace is necessary for many reasons: military, economic, geopolitical reasons etc. Although there have been many crises since 1979, like the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada and all of these conflict situations, yet the Egyptian government, including the short-lived Morsi government, had maintained and did not abrogate relations with Israel, in spite of what the street thinks.

There are other countries where the street is not necessarily anti other countries. You take a country like Senegal, which is a Muslim majority country, though not an Arab country, where the people tend to be very pro-Israel. That’s a possibility as well, also without being anti-Palestine.

You see, it’s complicated. Now there’s been a discussion of Sudan and the possibility of establishing relations with the Republic of Sudan, Israel has had relations with South Sudan since independence. While it seems that the government, which is a transitional government, seems to be negotiating some sort of recognition with Israel, though they’ve not announced it or implemented it because the street wouldn’t necessarily accept it. The political and domestic situation there is delicate enough that they don’t want to chance the kind of unrest that they believe it may cause. This is a function of what the leadership of countries have been projecting also, since the establishment of Israel, 70 odd years ago. If they’ve been portraying Israel as the “small Satan”, as Iran portrays it, with USA being the big Satan, for 70 years, it’s difficult to get the street on your side, especially in a democratic country, where the people have some say.

Israel has come closer and farther from establishing relations with Muslim majority countries, Arab countries over the years. Israel had relations with Mauritania, then it was cut off. I remember there was lots of contact with Pakistan at the beginning of the millennium, early 2000s, and everybody thought that there will be relations with Pakistan and it didn’t happen. (laughs) So, these sorts of things come and go in waves, and even when they happen, they’re not necessarily permanent.

I don’t think it’s a particular block though to having certain sorts of relationships with these countries, mostly business. If you’re talking about Malaysia, Indonesia or Gulf States, one’s mostly talking about economic interests. If both sides want to do business, they are going to do business!

Yashaswi Pande: Do you think supposed Iranian military or strategic victories in Syria and Yemen have brought UAE and other Arab nations closer or is it the technological advances made by Israel and the commercial opportunities it provides that have worked in Israel’s favour?

I don’t think it’s binary; it’s not one or the other. You can’t say it’s just because of military reasons or just because of economic reasons. Actually, both of those considerations are the kind of things that can take place under the table if you want them to. Israel cooperated militarily with India before 1992. Israel has had defence cooperation with other countries with which it doesn’t have official relations. The same goes for economic relations. I don’t think any one thing is necessarily the motor which drives that sort of a thing. It’s a question of constellation: what’s going on at the time, what the superpowers are trying to do or how they are involved, be it the Americans or the Russians or the Chinese, and sometimes there’s a moment and whenever that opportunity is there, it needs to be grasped. Israel itself has said that it’s open to relations with any country which declares itself open to it. If it (reasons for cooperation) were just military or just economic, it probably wouldn’t be enough, (and cooperation is possible) only when it’s multifaceted or multi-layered.

Saarthak Singhal: What do you think is the impact of former senior military officials heading the foreign policy initiatives? We ask this question as the current Foreign Minister, Gabriel Ashkenazi, used to be the Chief of General Staff of the IDF. Would they operate with a different perspective with a focus on a hard power initiative?

Let me put it this way, and I can say this because I’m not an official representative of any government anymore at this point (laughs); in general, I’m opposed to Generals being in positions of making policy outside of military affairs. We’ve had this in Israel and we’re going to have it again, but I don’t think necessarily Generals are by definition fit to be Minister of the Treasury, or Minister of Transport or Prime Minister, for that matter. The fact that they’ve led the army doesn’t make them naturally fit to lead the country, per se. Having said that, there have been a number of Generals who have been Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Israel over the course of the year and it remains to be seen about the individual. If you want me to actually go into the details of it, rumours in Israel say that Ashkenazi is just planning to be Minister of Defence when his boss Benny Gantz rotates into the premiership in another year or so. So, he’s in the foreign affairs as a kind of passing through phase, there’s that rumour anyway. I’ve met Minister Ashkenazi in the past, when he was the Chief of Staff and I was the diplomat in one of my posts. I think he has a good grasp of foreign policy in all its aspects, not just in terms of hard power but he definitely understands the different levels there.

I think with this particular General, that’s not so much of an issue. However, there have been other Generals where it has been an issue. I can say that straight out, and to my mind, it would be better for Generals just to stay away from politics.

There’s a very old story, if I have a minute to tell it. The American Mediterranean Fleet, the Sixth Fleet, traditionally docks once a year in Haifa port in Israel, as a show of friendship and to give their soldiers some rest and relaxation. The American Ambassador at the time, and this was years ago, hosted a dinner for the Admiral of the fleet. After dinner, they’re smoking cigars and drinking their Brandy, and the Admiral says, “I’m thinking of talking to the President”, I think it was Johnson at the time, “I’m getting ready to retire and I’d like him to give me an ambassadorial post.” The American Ambassador responded saying, “I’m retiring soon too and I was thinking of talking to Johnson to get a post as an Admiral.” (laughs) That’s basically what I think about the involvement of ex-military officers in politics and diplomacy. Having said that, there have been some success stories and I think up until now at least, Ashkenazi is doing a pretty good job of being Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Host – Saarthak Singhal & Yashaswi Pande

Technical Editor – AarzoGang.

Transcript – Aadya Bansal & Ramsha Reyaz

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