Athens, J'lem announce joint diaspora conference

Unique conference to take place this summer; Greek deputy foreign minister key factor in vastly improved relations.

Ayalon (left) shakes hands with Dimitrios Dollis 390 (photo credit: Foreign Ministry)
Ayalon (left) shakes hands with Dimitrios Dollis 390
(photo credit: Foreign Ministry)
Greece and Israel announced Tuesday a unique diaspora conference, the brainchild of visiting Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitrios Dollis, to take place in Thessaloniki (Salonika) this summer.
The idea to discuss how Greece and Israel can strengthen their ties with their diaspora communities isn’t Dollis’s only brainchild – he is also widely credited with being a major force behind Athens’ dramatic realignment of its foreign policy toward Israel.
The Greek diplomat, who has an Australian accent, lived in Melbourne for 28 years and worked in Parliament, where current Prime Minister Julia Gillard served as his chief of staff.
“Dollis is one of Israel’s best friends in Greece,” said Aryeh Mekel, the envoy to Athens.
“He has been arguing for more than 20 years that Greece should get closer to Israel. He is a close associate of former prime minister [George] Papandreou, and was one of the architects of Greece’s decision to upgrade its relationship with Israel, which has only flourished since then.”
Dollis credits his time in Melbourne, where there are large Greek and Jewish communities that work closely on a number of issues, with planting in him the idea of Greek-Israeli cooperation.
“Our communities abroad have grown up together and cooperate, and it makes sense for us to do it here as well,” he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Asked what took so long, Dollis replied, “Strange things happen, and strange things don’t happen.”
He said that Greece was preoccupied with everything else in the 1970s and 1980s: the country’s path to the EU, changes after the dictatorship.
“It doesn’t matter that it took so long,” he said of the dramatic warming of ties.
“What is important is that it taking place in truthful manner, with an emphasis on the long run, and not only on the present.”
Dollis returned to Greece in 1999 at a time when Papandreou, then foreign minister, was trying to get Greek expatriates to return to the country.
Dollis became one of his advisers. When Papandreou became prime minister in 2009, he named Dollis deputy foreign minister.
Papandreou, with Dollis advising him, made a historic visit to Israel in 2010, signaling the significant upgrade in ties. While this improvement in relations came as Israeli- Turkish ties were already in a tailspin, Dollis denied that this was part of the equation in improving ties with Israel.
“If we try to build relationships on something temporary, then the foundations would not be real,” he said.
Dollis admitted that some in the Arab world were surprised with the dramatic change in ties – there were nine Greek ministerial visits in 2011, contrasted with almost zero from 1991 to 2010 – but said he did not think the relationship cost Greece friendships elsewhere.
“You don’t lose friends by making new friends,” he said.
Dollis, explaining what Israel could provide Greece, mentioned the country’s expertise in agriculture, water management and technology.
He also said that there were tremendous opportunities for Israeli-Greek cooperation, along with Cyprus, in the energy sphere. With the huge discoveries in Israel’s territorial waters of natural gas, and significant discoveries off the coast of Cyprus as well, Greece is beginning the process of its own exploration efforts, and is interested in being an energy hub for Israeli and Cypriot gas exports to Europe.
“This offers huge opportunities,” Dollis said, adding that Greece could serve as a gateway to Europe. Concrete plans are premature to discuss, he added, since Israel has not yet determined whether it intended to export natural gas west to Europe, or east to Asia.
“We are developing plans to have Greece as a hub for energy distribution,” he said, adding that this was something Israel might take into consideration when considering its own plans.
Asked what Greece was interested in from Israel, the deputy foreign minister said investments. Paradoxically, according to Dollis, the deep economic crisis in Greece was opening up investment opportunities for foreigners, since one of the EU’s conditions for assisting the country is that it privatizes the economy.
This is leading to investment opportunities in a wide range of fields, from real estate to tourist development.
Dollis expressed appreciation to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for extending a $100 million line of credit in September to Israeli businesses investing or trading with Greece.
As to what else Israel could do to help Greece overcome its present difficulties, Dollis said it was always good to have “friends speaking for you,” alluding to Israel’s ties with the US.
While acknowledging that Greece has very good ties with the US and does not need Israel as a channel to Washington, “it is always better to speak with more than one voice,” he said.
Regarding Iran, Dollis danced around the question about whether Athens was concerned about a possible Israeli strike, saying, “I have learned over the years not to worry about things that I don’t control.”
He acknowledged that Greece was hit hard by the EU decision to embargo Iranian oil, since over the past two to three years the country has become more dependent on Iran as a fuel source than other European countries because of its economic crisis.
Dollis said that Iran became a primary supplier of oil to Greece because it was willing to provide the best credit terms and lowest prices.
Even though Iran became the cheapest source of oil, and over the last two years has at times supplied some 50 percent of the country’s oil needs, Athens is now looking for alternative sources, primarily in Latin America and with the Saudis, Dollis said.
Greece is going along with the embargo decision regardless of the hardship, he stated, because there are some important decisions “you have to make,” and then figure out later ways to deal with their consequences.