Diplomacy: ‘Continuing Papandreouism without Papandreou’

Will the golden age of diplomatic ties with Jerusalem continue under Athens’ transitional government?

George Papandreou with PM Netanyahu 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
George Papandreou with PM Netanyahu 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Shortly after prime minister George Papandreou was forced to step down last week because of Greece’s economic crisis, Israel’s ambassador to Athens Aryeh Mekel sent a cable (made known to The Jerusalem Post) to the Foreign Ministry saying Jerusalem’s challenge would now be to “continue Papandreouism without Papandreou.”
What Mekel was referring to, and what those in the ministry dealing with Athens are currently focusing on, is to ensure that the dramatic turnaround in Israeli-Greek ties ushered in by Papandreou does not follow the former prime minister out the door.
Papandreou shepherded in what could fairly be called a “golden age” in Israeli-Greek ties. Starting when he met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by chance at a restaurant in Moscow in early 2010, the two leaders clicked. Both spent formative years during their youth in the US and went to college there (Papandreou was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and studied at Amherst, and Netanyahu spent many years in Philadelphia and studied at MIT), both speak American English and both have a decidedly US-tilted foreign policy orientation.
Despite these similarities, this “click” was not a given, inasmuch as being pro- Israeli was not exactly in Papandreou's blood-line. His father, Andreas, served as prime minister of Greece twice (1981-1989 and 1993-1996) and was known for his pro-Palestinian, anti- Israel leanings. Indeed, it took until 1992 for Greece – which chartered a pro-Arab foreign policy and was long considered the harshest of Israel’s critics in Europe – to even formally establish ties with Israel.
The good personal relationship between the two leaders came at a fortuitous time. It came when Israeli- Turkish ties were already in a tailspin and Jerusalem was looking for other allies in southern Europe to counterbalance Turkey.
It also came as Greece was looking to raise its diplomatic profile and attempt to be seen as a significant player in the region to help convince the international community to give it the economic assistance it sought. Furthermore, it came as Athens was keen on making inroads into the US Jewish community to both attract investors and win favor in Washington. The dramatic uptick in Greek-Israeli ties proved once again that old adage that in the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Papandreou was one of the world leaders Netanyahu was closest with, and the relationship the two forged paid dividends for both countries. In the past two years, Athens has gone from one of the countries in Europe that were most critical of Israel, to one of the most supportive. Bilateral ties have flourished; trade is on the upswing; military ties are close (this week the Hellenic Air Force trained with the Israel Air Force in the Negev); bilateral ministerial visits are abundant; political cooperation is very close; and tourism to Greece is way up, as Israelis are avoiding Turkey.
When the Mount Carmel Forest fire struck last December, it was the Greeks who first answered Netanyahu’s call for assistance and dispatched fire-fighting planes that, according to Israeli officials, put out some two-thirds of the blaze. Netanyahu, for his part, has lobbied European leaders repeatedly over the past year to assist Greece economically, and Israel – to show its support – even extended a $100 million line of credit in September to Israeli businesses investing or trading with Greece.
Most important, it was the Greeks who put the kibosh on efforts in June to send a flotilla of some 15 ships to try and break the blockade of Gaza. Athens simply foiled the plans by barring the vessels from setting sail from Greek ports.
So when Papandreou stepped down last week, the question being asked in Jerusalem was, indeed, whether “Papandreouism” – that new Greek spirit toward Israel – would continue under the transitional government.
Israeli and Greek officials and academics alike are confident it will, saying that while a good personal chemistry between Papandreou and Netanyahu oiled the relationship, it was the interests of both countries that propelled it forward.
“The common interest between the two countries is very strong,” said Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev. ‘These mutual interests are strong enough to keep the bilateral ties at the same level.”
Regev, who said the relationship between the leaders was “especially close” and that the two men spoke often by phone about a wide array of issues, added that while there was no doubt their friendship was important in pushing forward the bilateral relationship, “now that the cork is open, the wine is flowing and we believe it will continue to do so.”
Mekel, in a phone conversation from Athens, said the last year was an “unprecedentedly good year” in ties and the “best year ever for relations” between the two countries.
Mekel said much credit goes to the Greek government and Papandreou who initiated the moves with Netanyahu. But, he said, “the ties go beyond that and are ties between the governments’ leaders and the publics.”
Ticking off the name of one Greek minister after the next who has visited Israel over the last year, Mekel said Greek public opinion supports the improved relationship and that the Greek media has been very positive.
Papandreou, in a speech to parliament before he stepped down, termed the improved relationship with Israel one of his best achievements and called for it to be maintained.
Moreover, reading the writing on the wall, Israel cultivated ties over the last year with other members of Papandreou’s PASOK party as well as with the members of the opposition New Democracy party. These two parties, together with a small extreme right-wing party, now make up the transitional government under Lucas Papademos.
That government won an overwhelming vote in the Greek parliament on Wednesday, with 255 of the deputies voting confidence in Papademos, an economist who will focus on implementing the EUimposed austerity moves
The transitional government is backed by Papandreou’s PASOK party, which commands a majority in the 300-seat parliament, the main opposition conservative New Democracy party and the far-Right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS).
And therein lies the rub. LAOS leader, Georgios Karatzaferis has made comments in the past denying the Holocaust, and newly appointed government minister of infrastructure, transport and networks, Makis Vorids, has questioned whether the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was in fact an authentic document. Jewish organizations such as the Anti- Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have called for Papademos to distance himself from the anti-Semitism of the party’s leaders.
Israeli officials suggested that the Greek government took this party into the coalition because it was trying to have as wide an appeal on the street as possible. Only the country’s Communist Party and the Coalition of the Radical Left refused to join the transitional government.
The officials said that most of the former PASOK ministers and deputy ministers will remain at their posts and that the New Democrat ministers who will take over at the defense ministry and foreign ministry are supportive of Athens’ pro-Israel orientation.
LAOS will have one minister in the government, two deputy ministers and two alternate ministers – not considered in Israel a strong enough presence to change the pro-Israel orientation.
That LAOS will play a minor role was echoed by Evangelos Venetis, a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy, an Athens-based think tank.
Venetis, who specializes in the Middle East, said that Karatzaferis is a “pragmatic and clever” politician who has supported the Greek-Israeli rapprochement because he agrees that these ties are in Greece’s interests. LAOS, Venetis said, will not throw a spanner in the ties.
Greek envoy to Tel Aviv Kyriakos Loukakis said “anti-Semitism always has and always will be condemned by the Greek governments because it is condemned by the Greek society. Anti-Semitism is completely alien to the history and values of the Greek people.”
The Greek ambassador, pointing out that new Foreign Minister Stavros Dimas told the parliament that enhancing relations with Israel was a strategic choice for the government and complimented the country's “multifaceted policy in the region,” said he was “certain Israeli-Greek ties and cooperation in all fields will continue to flourish” under the Papademos government.
Venetis agreed, explaining that on a strategic level, Greece “wants a partner in the region who can actually help the Greece and Cyprus defense environment with Turkey. Israel, for Greece, is a key partner – the only partner in the eastern Mediterranean – vis-a-vis Turkey.”
He said Athens wanted close collaboration with Israel for energy and defense reasons, as well as for security issues regarding Cyprus.
According to Venetis, while Papandreou’s role in the future government was still unclear, he was likely to have a behind-thescenes role – along with the new foreign minister – in preserving and promoting ties with Israel, especially since the transitional prime minister would be focused almost exclusively on economics until the next election in three months.
If that is indeed what emerges, then there will be smiles in Jerusalem, since a backroom foreign policy role for Papandreouism is good news for Israel.