A Greek left-wing leader

Israel has some reason for concern, though little is likely to change in near future.

A man holding a Greek flag walks on central Syntagma square in Athens. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man holding a Greek flag walks on central Syntagma square in Athens.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Greece chose a new leader last week: Alexis Tsipras of the left-wing Syriza party.
Tsipras, 40, lacks any government experience, but was able to form a coalition within 24 hours of elections; notably, he refused a religious swearing-in ceremony, as is customary in Greece.
Syriza received 36.3 percent of the vote; the Greek constitution grants a bonus of 50 parliament seats to the victorious party, in order to create political stability.
Thus Syriza had 149 seats out of 300, and needed a coalition partner to forge a majority. In this way, the day after elections, the Independent Greeks – a rightwing party that garnered 4.7% of the vote and 13 seats – joined Tsipras; the new government now has a parliamentary majority of 162 seats.
Syriza was formed several years ago by 14 small groups and political factions on the Left, electing the then-35-year-old Tsipras as its president. Syriza had one goal: To put an end to the process of austerity and reforms forced upon Greece by the Troika (the EU, Central European Bank and International Monetary Fund), in return for granting the country more than 300 billion euros to rescue it from the worst economic crisis in its history.
The two governments in power during those years – the Socialist (PASOK) government of George Papandreou, and later the conservative (New Democracy) government of Antonis Samaras – signed a memorandum with the lenders that became a despised symbol of the suffering of the Greek people.
The Troika forced upon Greece economic steps such as improving the tax collection system, cutting salaries and pensions of public administrators, a reduction in the bloated public service and the privatization of government-owned companies. Syriza, the main opposition party, fought vigorously against these demands; the Greek people then decided to challenge the EU by handing the government to Syriza – which might affect other European countries in economic crisis, such as Spain and Portugal.
Syriza’s coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, was formed in 2012 and is led by Panos Kammenos, who served as a former deputy minister in the New Democracy government. The Left-Right coalition is based on a common agenda, to reject and challenge the imposed austerity regime.
The EU, and especially Germany, is still weighing the best response to the Greek challenge. The EU has said that Athens must live up to all of its international commitments if it is to continue receiving European assistance; however, the body’s leadership must accept the fact that the Greeks opted to elect a government which demands very significant changes to the aid package, especially to the conditions attached to it.
At the same time, Tsipras does not want and cannot afford a bitter dispute with Europe’s leaders, particularly Germany, and will probably seek a compromise. The Greeks want to remain in the EU and in the euro zone.
Nevertheless, in the near future, Tsipras intends to pass several bills that will reflect his pre-election pledges: The new government plans to raise the minimum wage, ease the terms for paying overdue debts to the tax authorities and rehire public service employees who were let go during recent years. Tsipras also plans to establish an investigative commission to look into the circumstances surrounding the previous Greek governments’ adherence to the despised memorandum with the Troika.
As to Greece’s relationship with Israel, there is ample cause for concern. Athens-Jerusalem cooperation has significantly improved since 2010, throughout the tenure of both the Socialist and conservative governments of Greece. Nowadays, the two countries enjoy a close and intimate relationship in several areas including defense, with air force and navy joint maneuvers leading the way.
By contrast, Syriza has been very critical of Israel.
While all party members are not cut from the same cloth, many of its leaders are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Some party leaders were involved in organizing anti-Israeli demonstrations in Athens during Operation Protective Edge last summer and at least one of its leaders, Theodoris Dritsas, participated in one of the flotillas to Gaza.
The defense relationship, however, may benefit from the appointment of coalition partner leader Kammenos as defense minister. In his previous capacities, Kammenos has expressed friendship towards Israel and favored close defense cooperation.
The new prime minister, for his part, has only had one meeting with an Israeli leader – in August 2012, when then-president Shimon Peres was on an official visit to Greece and Tsipras had just been elected to parliament, becoming leader of the opposition. The meeting lasted more than an hour and was very cordial.
Peres refrained from politics and discussed his vision for the role the young generation should play in today’s world. Tsipras listened attentively, insisted on speaking Greek and expressed no criticism of the Jewish state. The two mused about their over-50-year age difference.
Syriza always takes pain to stress that while the party is critical of Israel, it is by no means anti-Semitic, and that it is a staunch critic of the Greek neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn.
Syriza leaders have also regularly attended commemorative events for the Holocaust. Indeed, next week Athens will observe International Holocaust Day, after the large-scale event was postponed by several days due to elections; it has been organized by a senior Syriza leader, Attica regional governor Rena Dourou, in cooperation with the Jewish community.
The new Greek government is unlikely to change its policy towards Israel in the near future. Its main challenge will be to find a compromise with the EU in a way that will satisfy the Greek public – a public that expects miracles from Tsipras and his team. If they succeed, they will be free to consider other foreign policy issues. 
The writer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, was Israel’s envoy to Greece from 2010 to 2014. He also served as deputy Israeli ambassador to the UN, diplomatic adviser to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, consul-general in New York City, and Foreign Ministry spokesman as well as its deputy director-general for cultural and scientific affairs.
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