'J'lem, Athens pursue a strong relationship in all aspects'

Exclusive: Greek President Papoulias tells ‘Post’ he doesn’t deny improved relations connected to deterioration of Israeli-Turkish ties.

Greek President Karolos Papoulias 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Greek President Karolos Papoulias 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Greek President Karolos Papoulias will arrive on Sunday night for a visit symbolizing the dramatic upgrade in Israeli-Greek ties that was evident last week when Athens refused to let Gaza-bound vessels set sail from its ports.
President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are expected to heap praise on Greece for its actions, which effectively put an end to the hopes of the flotilla’s organizers to sail for Gaza.
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Papoulias, who will be here for 48 hours, will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Stavros Lambrinidis, Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, and Deputy Environment, Energy and Climate Change Minister Yiannis Maniatis.
During his visit, the Greek president will go to Ramallah for meetings with the Palestinian leadership.
Papoulias, who served two stints as foreign minister in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, when Greece was considered one of the least friendly countries in Europe to Israel, was a close associate of the late prime minister Andreas Papandreou, the father of the current prime minister, George Papandreou.
The elder Papandreou was widely considered pro-Palestinian, and Papoulias was among those who built Greece’s strongly pro- Arab foreign policy at the time.
Now Papoulias is considered in Jerusalem as a supporter of Greece’s realignment of its policy toward Israel.
Ahead of his arrival, The Jerusalem Post conducted an email interview with Papoulias, in which he answered eight of 16 questions posed to him. While he did discuss the upgrade in Greek- Israeli ties, he did not answer questions such as whether Greece’s cold-shoulder toward Israel in the 1980s was a mistake, whether he thinks the dramatic improvement in ties with Israel reflects the attitude of government only, or the entire country, and what is Greece’s position regarding the PA’s statehood bid at the UN in September.
Why are good ties with Israel important for Greece?
Greece and Israel have rich and diverse ties – shared history in the wider Mediterranean area; shared pain through the extermination of Greek Jews by the Nazis. We are now involved in an intensive process of cooperation. Our ministers and officials systematically consult and work together on all levels and in key areas: energy, defense and security, agriculture, tourism. We are also working together on international issues and matters of regional concern to both countries. We are pursuing a strong relationship – strong on trade, strong on investment, strong on political and security cooperation.
Why are close ties with Greece important for Israel?
I would say that this question would best be answered by Israeli officials.
Greece and Cyprus offer a safe and secure route towards Europe and the West. It is safe because it is not based on the good political climate between our two countries alone. Relationships based on politics may change, as we are all aware of. Our relationship is built on the more solid foundations of our common culture. The Greek route offers a safe environment for Israeli tourists, possibilities of increased economic cooperation, trade development and two-way investment, political and military cooperation that can benefit both our countries.
The delimitation of an Exclusive Economic zone between Cyprus and Israel, the discovery of major reserves of natural gas off the coast of both countries, and the possibility to export via Greece changes the geo-economic situation in our wider region. It offers Israel a secure route to Europe.
What are you most interested in? Strategic ties? Military ties? Economic ties?
I do not see relations with Israel as developing in piecemeal fashion. Relations between countries are not static.
For example, as I mentioned, the discovery of major reserves off the coast of Cyprus and Israel changes the geo-economic situation in the region. It opens up new opportunities for cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. That is why it is now strategically even more important that a viable solution be found to the Cyprus problem, and we are counting on the support of Israel to achieve this.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been speaking to world leaders and urging them to support your country’s economic recovery plan. Has this helped?
I would like to warmly thank the Israeli leaders for their support, which is so important in these times.
Greece is traversing a difficult and painful economic crisis.
Whilst not underestimating its seriousness and the reforms we need to adopt, I believe that, to a great extent, it reflects the systemic crisis of the euro.
The Eurozone does not have the political institutions to properly manage the problems that have arisen. This leaves us at the mercy of credit rating agencies as we have failed in our pledge to curb their powers. We have to ask ourselves serious questions about the role they are playing.
Today it is Greece. Tomorrow it could be another country. In the absence of common economic governance and [with] political unification without procedures and measures that will promote economic convergence, the Eurozone will undoubtedly reach a dead end.
Quick-fix responses will not solve the problem.
Earlier this year, Greece hosted the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Why is it important for Greece to have ties with the Jewish Diaspora? In what way can the Jewish and Greek diasporas cooperate?
Both Greece and Israel have large and vital diasporas, which closely monitor and support their respective homelands on issues of national interest.
Improved ties between Greece and Israel have also brought Jewish and Greek communities in the diaspora closer. This rapprochement clearly provides them with an opportunity both for local cooperation and for enhancing the mutual support of our national interests.
There are those who argue that the improvement in Israeli-Greek ties is a result of the deterioration in Israel- Turkish ties. Is there anything to that?
In diplomacy there are always connections, influencing factors, objective and subjective criteria, changing geopolitical and geoeconomic factors that shape relationships. What I want to assure you (and this, I believe, is the crucial point), is that our relations are now on solid ground. Of course it is up to our governments and our officials to strengthen ties and to assure a solid, long lasting relationship that will be to the benefit of both our countries.
I understand that you will be traveling to Ramallah after coming to Jerusalem. What message will you be bringing to the Palestinians?
Greece has always been present in the Middle East. Large Greek communities live here.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is here. We have an interest in a stable, secure and prosperous Middle East. The political deadlock in the peace process remains and affects the wider region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also deeply affects the people in the area. They are the ones to suffer. It is their future that is at stake.
In substance we support a two-state solution – a democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel within secure borders. As far as the process is concerned, I remain convinced that direct negotiations between the two sides are the only way to achieve a comprehensive and viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through its good relations with all countries in the wider area, Greece has contributed to the peace process and will continue to do so. Ultimately, of course, it is up to the parties involved to make the hard choices that will be necessary in order to achieve results.
You will be attending an economic conference in Israel. What is the goal? What type of investments are you looking for from the Israeli private sector?
The Greek-Israeli Business Forum on Investment and Trade to be held in Tel Aviv on Tuesday is an opportunity to further our trade and investment relations.
It is a key priority. During the conference, business people from both countries will have the possibility to expand trade and investment, promote tourism and create new opportunities in both our nations. This year we expect 400,000 tourists from Israel. I would like to thank the Israeli people for their choice. In a concrete way they are showing their solidarity with Greece and the Greek people.