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The road to happiness: How we established ties with Bhutan

Our clandestine visits laid the ground for agreements on agriculture, health and water, as well as the chance to improve voting patterns in the UN
Bhutan's former prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, center, with Daniel Carmon, Israel's ambassador to India at the time (left) and Asia-Pacific Division Director Gilad Cohen, in 2017. (Courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Bhutan's former prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, center, with Daniel Carmon, Israel's ambassador to India at the time (left) and Asia-Pacific Division Director Gilad Cohen, in 2017. (Courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

In November 2017, I flew to Bhutan as part of my first task as Director of the Asia-Pacific Division at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before entering my role, I learned about the closed kingdom that had refrained from establishing diplomatic relations with Israel for many years. In the past, there were few visits of Israeli ambassadors to Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital; but the country remained shut to normalizing relations with us. I decided that we owed it to ourselves to try and break through and progress with relations.

(Courtesy Foreign Ministery of Israel)

Over the course of the past several years, we have worked to forge the content of our relations and prepare the foundations for normalization. The Foreign Ministry has hosted delegations relating to a variety of fields, from cyber to agriculture through to the establishment of compulsory military and national service in Bhutan, similar to what currently exists in Israel. Our ambassador to India went to meet the King twice. These encounters proved fruitful; Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with Bhutanese Foreign Minister Dorji some ten days ago, and the two agreed on the establishment of relations and on a joint work program going forward. Israel’s ambassador to India, Dr. Ron Malka, signed the agreement in New Delhi on December 12, 2020, together with his counterpart, Bhutan’s ambassador to India.

This signing represents the culmination of a process led by us at the Foreign Ministry in cooperation with Mashav, the ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, to nurture relations with Bhutan and provide assistance in the areas of agriculture, health, and water sector management. Bhutan’s senior leaders greatly value Israel’s capabilities and want to learn from the knowledge and technology that Israeli companies have to offer.

(Courtesy Foreign Ministery of Israel)

By establishing relations, we will be able to institutionalize political connections that had remained clandestine until now, sign additional agreements, and create a dialogue on improving voting patterns in the UN; Bhutan has been a member of the Non-Aligned Movement since 1973, and has voted as part of its bloc against us. We will be able to advance Israeli exports in the areas of agrotechnology, water and health, and promote outbound Israeli tourism to the beautiful and magical destination that is Bhutan.

Our two countries share many similarities. We are both small, interested in progress and development that still preserves the traditional values that make us unique, and also share a mutual curiosity. On the happiness index, given to the world by the Kingdom of Bhutan, we both occupy high positions.

The Abraham Accords fostered a warm and positive atmosphere not only across the Middle East, but also among the Muslim-majority countries of Southeast Asia and those yet to normalize relations with Israel. We hope that the King of Bhutan will travel to Jerusalem in the upcoming year for a royal visit and that the ambassadors of each country will present their diplomatic credentials soon. We at the Foreign Ministry will continue to work towards ensuring that more countries in Asia follow Bhutan’s lead and establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. The time has come, for all of us, and for future generations.

About the Author
Gilad Cohen is Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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