During outgoing Israeli Ambassador Gil Haskel’s tenure, the Embassy has celebrated its Independence Day by hosting charitable events in public hospitals and so on instead of the usual reception.
When did you first arrive in Kenya? And what were your initial impressions of the country?
I arrived in Kenya to begin my post as Israel’s’ Ambassador on August 2011, exactly 3 years ago. My impressions were very positive. We managed to spot a few animals in the national park, and that caused a lot of excitement within the family, that immediately felt that they had landed in Kenya. The road from JKIA into town is heavily populated with international branded businesses, which turned the ride into a very friendly and familiar experience.
Israel is considered to be perhaps the world’s greatest innovator in ‘drylands agriculture’: with so much of our country mostly semi-desert, what can Kenya learn from Israel?
As I have too often stated here, Israel is willing to share with our Kenyan friends any technology that has been developed in Israel along the years. This includes, off course Agro-technology and arid irrigation technology. Israel is far drier than any part of Kenya, and if we manage to irrigate all parts of Israel and to grow laterally anything for export, so can Kenya. Kenya has great soil and more than enough rainfall, year round. The main challenge for Kenya is how to manage the water on a national level, in order to mobilize the water from where it rains to where it is most needed, and Israel excels in these techniques and methods. Kenya can benefit from the Israeli experience, and I have invested a great deal of my time in order to introduce these methods here in Kenya. Its now up to the Kenyan side to decide what and how to adopt.
One of the projects associated with your embassy are the ‘Mashav Courses’. It may surprise you to learn that most Kenyans have no idea what these are. Could you explain in some detail?
It definitely surprises me, since many of thousands of Kenyans have been trained in Israel along the years, starting from pre-independence days (as early as 1957). MASAV is Israel’s international development program, which brings into Israel trainees in all different fields for training and capacity building activities. All these courses are fully funded by the Government of Israel as part of our foreign aid program. We are great believers in the concept of training the trainers, as a sustainable method for expanding the expertise. Mashav also sends Israeli experts abroad for consultancy activities and on the spot training activities in Kenya itself. Just a few days ago we signed a phase II agreement for fish breeding training together with the Government of Germany and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for training of farmers around lake Victoria.
What about government-to-government projects?
MASHAV prefers to operate under a Government to Government framework, making it more beneficial on a national level, prioritized by the government. In this day and age, we as governments should aspire to build G2G platforms that will enable private sector companies to come together.
During your tenure, the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi has taken to celebrating your Independence Day/National Day by hosting charitable events in public hospitals and so on, instead of the usual diplomatic reception? Nobody else does this. Why do you do it?
We have combined public social events, such as fashion shows, food and film festivals etc. with charitable events. We believe that the funds allocated by our government to social events, will go a much longer way in a country like Kenya, if rooted into charitable activities to the benefit of the underprivileged in society like needy children or needy patients in public hospitals. To my personal opinion, holding a lavish independence day event, should be done once or twice in a tenor of each Ambassador, all the rest of the funding should be dedicated to charitable causes that can be found in any society.
There are many Middle Eastern embassies in Kenya, representing nations which are not on very good terms with Israel. Do you find that you can have brotherly or friendly relations with the ambassadors of these nations, or do you have the same coldness here that is so evident on the global stage?
Very interesting question. The answer is not clear cut. Some ME Ambassadors refuse to even say hello when they see me, Others are good friends. I myself have no problems in relating with all of them and hosting them in my house, even for an Iftar dinner. I believe that the healing process in the ME will start with the people, and should start with the leaders and the Ambassadors. A conflict starts from people and can only be resolved by the people
What would you say has been your family’s most cherished memory of Kenya? Some recollection you will all take with you when you leave?
Sorry to be so obvious, but the experience of the Safari. I’ll never forget two years ago, when we were in the Masai Mara, we stopped are car 2 meters away from two lions mating and roaring at each other (perhaps a domestic quarrel…). We witnessed them for a very long time, and this is a recollection that will definitely stay with us forever. In addition, the entire family fell in love completely with the Nairobi slum children, which my wife, Dalit, worked very closely with, as part of her extensive charitable work. She often took us all along with her on weekends to spend some hours with these lovable kids.
What about your lowest point over the past few years in Kenya? It cannot all have been pleasant.
Definitely the Westgate terror carnage, in which we lost very close friends. But this was not only a personal tragedy, but also a national one, that to my opinion will reshape Kenya’s outlook towards security and civil protection for many years to come.
Would you say that there is any specific steps that have been taken during your time here to help the Kenyan economy expand, and to create local jobs?
I’m a great believer in allowing the private sector maximum room for natural expansion with very limited Government intervention. Our job as Government representatives is to build platforms for private sector engagements. I believe that expanding bilateral economic agreements between the governments of Kenya and Israel like trade, avoidance of double taxation, investment expansions and protection and more, which are all in a negotiation process between our governments, will assist in boosting trade and economic partnership. In our competitive world, the countries which will be more attractive for foreign investors, will the countries that will lead in business growth. And I believe Kenya is in the right direction.
Many Kenyans would like to visit Israel – the Holy Land – out of religious or sentimental reasons. What has your embassy done to make such travel easier?
First and foremost we have been working tirelessly to reestablish direct flights between Nairobi and Tel Aviv, and I’m happy to announce that starting from December 2014, Kenya Airways will launch direct flights a few times a week. The flight will take less than 5 hours, and will make the journey between Kenya and Israel very short and attractive. I’m positive that the planes will be full on both directions. In addition we have a policy of easing the visa process as much as possible. I would like the Kenyan people to realize that they are very welcome guests in Israel.
This may be an unfair question but I must end by asking: Do you really believe that Israel will ever live in peace with its neighbours, and that Israelis and Palestinians will one day have nothing to fear from each other?
In one word – yes!
The ME conflict is very much solvable and will eventually be solved. It will require brave decisions by courageous leaders. I agree that there is a lot of mutual fear, distrust and suspicion, that will be dissolved once a real peace process will be launched by the right leaders and with the international encouragement and support from friendly and supportive countries like Kenya, which enjoys good relations with all parties to the conflict.