Only three months after taking office, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev arrived in Israel on Saturday night in time to attend the World Cup soccer match between the national teams of Israel and Macedonia.
Zaev and several of his ministers and advisors were among the spectators who watched the game, but unlike so many of the Israelis who booed and cat-called, the Macedonians cheered and smiled, because Macedonia won 1-0.
Following Israel’s 2-1 victory over Macedonia in Macedonia in October last year, “we calculated to lose 2-1 or 3-1” Zaev admitted at a luncheon hosted in his honor at the King David Hotel Jerusalem on Sunday by the World Jewish Congress sponsored Israel Council on Foreign Relations. He surmised that with the prime minister and a third of the Macedonian government watching, the team was spurred to give its best performance.
Zaev previously visited Israel in October, 2015 as Opposition leader and mayor of Strumica.
Among the people he met on that occasion was President Reuven Rivlin, whom he met again on Sunday morning. Rivlin, an avid soccer fan, and a former president of Beitar Jerusalem in its hey-day, was effusive in his congratulatory remarks. “You played better than Israel and you scored a legal goal,” he said. “Football is like politics, or like government,” Rivlin continued. “It relies on team work. Without team work, you can’t do anything.”
As he has done with previous foreign politicians who have moved from the opposition into the leadership of their respective countries Rivlin quoted late prime minister Ariel Sharon who said that political life is like a wheel – sometimes up and sometimes down but what was important was to stay on the wheel. “You have proved that you can do that,” Rivlin told Zaev adding that as a mayor, Zaev had come into close contact with the people, and that this was good preparation for his current role as head of government.
Rivlin noted that relations between the two countries are getting stronger every year.
He asked Macedonia to use whatever influence it has in Europe in an attempt to stop demands for boycotts of Israel. Israel can understand criticism he said but not boycotts, especially in matters pertaining to Jerusalem. He found it preposterous to suggest that Jews have no connection with Jerusalem.
Turning to the subject of the conflict with the Palestinians, Rivlin said: “We will end this tragedy once we can convince our cousins – our neighbors that we have to find a way to live together.”
Pointing out that Macedonia is a small and not very powerful country, Zaev assured Rivlin that nonetheless it would support Israel wherever possible. “We always support our friends and Israel is one of the biggest friends of the Republic of Macedonia,” he said.
Aside from challenges presented by terrorism, extremism and radicalism, said Zaev, Macedonia’s greatest challenge is to deter its young people from migrating. Many young people are leaving in search of better jobs and a better quality of life..
He was hopeful that through technological cooperation with Israel, new job opportunities could be created, and that new approaches to agriculture could be learned. The latter is very important to land-locked Macedonia, which is essentially an agricultural country.
He was appreciative of the fact that Macedonia’s army has been equipped by Israel.
At the ICFR luncheon, Zaev received further congratulations on behalf of his country’s national soccer team– firstly from former director general of the Foreign Ministry Prof. Shlomo Avineri and then from former foreign minister Silvan Shalom who was among the people who hosted Zaev during his previous visit, and who saw him again in Macedonia two months ago. Shalom disclosed that during Zaev’s first visit to Israel, he had gone to the Western Wal and had deposited a note requesting that he win the election for prime minister – and apparently his plea was heard and answered. Avineri said that Macedonia’s victory was a difficult time for the people of Israel, “but we will overcome.” Legend has it that Alexander of Macedon (as he is known in Israel), once visited Jerusalem, said Avineri, adding “we don’t know if that’s true, but we’re pleased that Israel is one of the first countries visited by the new administration.”
Zaev spoke of how the economy is directly connected to security and world stability. A safe world means a prosperous world in which nations can focus on economic development, he said. |Acknowledging that radicalism and extremism have been a problem for Israel for many years, Zaev declared “today no country can turn a blind eye to this issue.,” which he said, also affects the Baltic states, and is a threat to all.
While the political will to combat these elements is strong, said Zaev, greater cooperation between countries is needed in the quest for world peace.
Two of Macedonia’s major aspirations are full integration into NATO and the European Union. The obstacle vis-a-vis the EU is Greece’s insistence that Macedonia changes its constitutional name. This is an acute problem, because according to Zaev, such a move would also entail loss of identity, language and cultural heritage.
He was hopeful that a solution could be found in 2018 when neither Greece nor Macedonia have elections.
Although the Jewish population of Macdeonia today numbers only 250, the history of the Jewish community goes back to Byzantine times. There is a Jewish memorial museum close to the Foreign Ministry, which Shalom described as amazing. Other Jewish projects listed by Zaev include the rehabilitation of the Jewish cemetery and the building of a Jewish memorial park.
One of the guests at the lunch asked about restitution of Jewish property and was told that the government hopes to a find a satisfactory solution to this problem as well.