Greek FM : Region only gains from blooming bilateral ties

Dimitris Droutsas to 'Post': "We are writing new pages in the history of Greek-Israeli relations;" arrives for one-day visit.

Greek FM Droustas (photo credit: Courtesy)
Greek FM Droustas
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli-Greek ties have improved over the past few months at about the same pace Israeli- Turkish ties have deteriorated, but Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas believes the two sets of relationships are unrelated.
Droutsas told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive e-mail interview just before his arrival on Sunday night that the recent bloom in Jerusalem’s relations with Athens “categorically” has no connection to the Israeli-Turkish crisis.
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International relations are not “a competitive game,” he said.
“We don’t see any competitive dimension between the relationship we are developing with Israel and our relationship with Turkey,” Droutsas said. “This is because each of these relationships has its own dynamic and its own historical background. What we are doing is writing new pages in the history of Greek- Israeli relations.”
Droutsas arrived Sunday night as part of a regional trip that will also take him to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Lebanon.
His visit comes about a year after George Papandreou’s center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) came into power. Initially, there were concerns in Jerusalem about this government, since Jerusalem generally prefers more conservative governments in Europe, and since Papandreou’s father, Andreas, was known for pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel leanings when he was Greece’s prime minister from 1981-1989 and from 1993-1996.
But those concerns evaporated as the younger Papandreou altered his country’s relationship with Israel for the better.
For many years visits by Greek ministers were few and far between, but since a visit here by Papandreou in July, his tourism minister, minister of state, deputy foreign minister and now foreign minister have all visited.
Israeli officials have also been visiting Athens with greater frequency: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went to Greece in August, and Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic-military bureau, was there earlier this month. Last week the Israeli and Greek air forces carried out a joint exercise.
In addition, the Foreign Ministry, acknowledging the change in the tone from Athens, named as its new ambassador to Greece one of its senior diplomats, Aryeh Mekel, who served in the past as foreign policy adviser to Yitzhak Shamir, director- general of the Israel Broadcast Authority, and consul-general in Atlanta and New York.
Mekel, according to diplomatic officials, has in only a short time been able to establish a close working relationship with the high echelons in the Greek government.
The following are excerpts from the interview with Droutsas:
What is the purpose of your visit, so soon after the Greek prime minister’s visit in the summer and the state minister’s visit last week? Still more visits will follow, have no doubt... My arrival here is a clear manifestation of our readiness to contribute to the promotion of the peace process, which is going through a difficult moment, and our interest in pushing forward Greek- Israeli relations.
To what do you attribute the sudden romance between Israel and Greece? The friendship between our peoples is nothing new. It is old, tested through difficult times, and it constitutes a stable basis for strong relations between our countries.This is the basis upon which we developed relations with Israel the last time we were in office, back in 1999 to 2004.From the moment the new PASOK government took office – a little over a year ago – we started working again with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government on this strategic goal: to strengthen and deepen Greek-Israeli relations within a mutually beneficial framework. Our two countries have no competing interests and therefore cooperation comes naturally. I hope that we will soon be able to see the first results of our renewed relationship.
For years Greece was considered in Israel to be pro- Palestinian, and one of the more critical countries inside Europe towards Israel. Is the sudden change of government policy backed by the Greek public? Greece has never been prejudiced – in favor of or against – any other people or any other state. Its foreign policy has always been a principled policy. It is based on the principles of international law, and more specifically on peace and on the resolution of disputes through dialogue. This policy has the full and firm support of the Greek people. I am sure that the increasing number of Israeli tourists who experience Greek hospitality and have people-to-people contacts in Greece can confirm that.
There are those who say that the sudden bloom in the relationship is purely a result of the friction between Israel and Turkey, reflecting the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” How much does the Turkey equation play in the relationship? It doesn’t, and I mean that categorically. We don’t see any competitive dimension between the relationship we are developing with Israel and our relationship with Turkey. This is because each of these relationships has its own dynamic and its own historical background. What we are doing is writing new pages in the history of Greek-Israeli relations. And – bearing in mind how close we are and how much we can do together – we have to admit that we are starting essentially from scratch.So let’s not look at international relations as just a competitive game. I, at least, believe that everyone in the region stands to gain from the intensification of our bilateral relations.
Others say that given Greece’s difficult economy and need for Washington’s help, the feeling is that closer ties with Israel will help Athens in Washington. Is that a consideration – that the door to Washington goes through Jerusalem? It is no secret that Greece has found itself in difficult economic straits this past year. But we are making an all-out effort – everyone, and particularly Greek citizens – to overcome and remedy the mistakes of the past.And this effort is paying off.The support we are getting from our friends and partners is invaluable, of course.In particular with regard to the US, I must say that Greece – like Israel – already has close ties, both bilaterally and in the framework of NATO.This is only natural. We are democracies who abide by the same rules and principles in international relations.There is also a large Greek-American community that acts as a living bridge of friendship between the two countries. In this context, it is also natural that we help each other should the need arise.
Pro-Israel and pro-Greek lobbies in Washington recently worked together to push passage of a House resolution calling for protection of Greek Orthodox religious sites in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus. Is that an indication of a growing alliance in Washington between the Greek and Jewish lobbies?A common feature of our peoples is the strong diaspora all over the world, and more specifically in the United States. Another common feature is the close links we have with our communities abroad and the readiness of those communities to assist in the service of national interests.These communities enjoy good relations and cooperate directly with each other.The improvement in bilateral relations between our two countries can also be reflected in their direct contacts, which can only get closer.
Are the closer ties between Greece and Israel causing problems with Greece’s ties with the Arab world?On the contrary. Closer ties between Greece and Israel improve Israel’s confidence in Greece, making the latter a more useful channel of communication with the Arab world, with which Greece already has traditional ties. Besides, Arab countries are very much aware of the fact that improving relations with Israel is not aimed against any other country.
Are these ties complicating matters between Athens and Turkey?I would say, quite the opposite. Let me stress once again that the strengthening of bilateral relations among the countries of our region can only contribute to regional stability, given that bilateral ties are not aimed against any third country.
Will Turkey allow Israel Air Force planes to practice over Greece, as they did over Turkey a few years ago? Development of military cooperation between Greece and Israel is a sovereign prerogative of the two countries.All the more so when this cooperation is in full compliance with international law and is not directed against any other state.
Would Greece let flotillas heading for Gaza leave from Greek ports? Greece fully understands Israel’s security concerns. At the same time, we should not forget the [Gaza] blockade’s serious implications on the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people living in Gaza.It is a fact – and the Israeli leadership acknowledged this by taking considerable steps in the right direction – that the unhindered flow of humanitarian aid into the area needs to be strengthened...Beyond that, I must say that as a country with one of the strongest merchant fleets in the world, Greece has great respect for international law and the principle of freedom of – lawful, I would add – navigation.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently the EU should first solve its own problems before coming and preaching to Israel about how to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. What is your reaction to that comment? It is my conviction that – besides any difficulties a club of 27 countries may face when dealing with such a delicate issue like the Middle East – the European Union can play a very constructive role in the region.It is in a position to contribute, with a vast array of tools, to the achievement and consolidation of peace in the Middle East.I believe that its presence is valuable to all sides. And I believe that the EU and Israel can improve their cooperation, which is mutually beneficial and can contribute to the peace-building process.
Are comments such as Lieberman’s leading to an increasing isolation of Israel in Europe? In the end of the day, it is political decisions and actions that define the course of diplomacy. But statements like the one you refer to serve as a reminder of the necessity to work on improving our relations.
Some say Israel is more isolated in the world, and in Europe, than it has been for 30 years. Do you agree with that assessment? Israel has always had very strong historical and cultural ties with Europe. There are certainly ups and downs, but the overall trend in relations between Israel and Europe is on the rise. A lot more can be done, of course, and we are all working in that direction.
Do you think the Palestinians should recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people?
I am convinced that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to reach a peace agreement.
I also believe that leaders on both sides will spare no effort to overcome obstacles to achieving peace in the region.
We believe that the two-state solution, with a democratic, viable, peaceful and sovereign Palestinian state and Israel living side by side within secure and recognized borders is the only solution that can bring peace and stability in the whole area.
Have you sensed a marked increase in Israeli tourism to Greece following the deterioration in ties with Turkey?
It is true that the number of Israeli tourists to Greece has been much higher this year in comparison to the past. We welcome Israeli tourists to Greece... Tourism is a bridge of friendship between our peoples, which should grow ever stronger.