Two nations under blue-and-white flags

Allies Greece and Israel strengthen their warm ties via an intimate Ambassadors' Club dinner connecting Israeli business people with the Greek ambassador.

Greek Ambassador Spiros Lampridis (second from left) speaks to dinner attendees, before a centerpiece of Greek/Israeli flags (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Greek Ambassador Spiros Lampridis (second from left) speaks to dinner attendees, before a centerpiece of Greek/Israeli flags
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
On an early May night, against the improbable backdrop of rain, the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel founder and president, the colorful Yitzhak Eldan, moderated an intimate dinner at a very Israeli type of agora: the trendy Kitchen Market restaurant at the Tel Aviv Port. The event, which made Greek Ambassador to Israel Spiros Lampridis accessible to a small group of under 15, mirrored the mission of the Ambassadors’ Club: To bring ambassadors and their governments closer to Israeli society in “less official” capacities that complement the activities of the Foreign Ministry.
With time for informal speeches, Q&A and one-on-one networking, the Israeli participants – prominent businessmen and women whose interests include shipping, aviation, Israeli radio stations, a concierge service and real estate, and several of whom serve as honorary consuls of countries such as Latvia, Sierra Leone and El Salvador – learned that Ambassador Lampridis has spent over 30 years in the diplomatic service, much of it in Brussels at the EU and NATO – despite what he says is his disposition against violence. It is the witty diplomat’s second post in Israel, his first being when he served at a young age as the Greek Embassy’s first secretary.
Indeed, his Hebrew is excellent, with an accent that is better than this American reporter’s, and he peppers his sentences with surprising expressions like “baruch Hashem” (thank God).
Athens has certainly been growing closer to Jerusalem these past few years, Lampridis affirms, stressing this has nothing to do with traditional rival Turkey’s simultaneous estrangement from the Jewish state (which he says was not really brought on by the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, calling it a pretext for changes many in Ankara already wanted to make).
It is these “excellent” ties between the countries – encompassing energy, commerce, tourism, environment and security – that Lampridis emphasizes, stating he was espousing the idea of approaching Israel 25 years ago. He says he saw no contradiction in maintaining good relations with Arab countries while also moving closer to Israel – a country he says shares not just Greece’s neighborhood, but also its interests and tendencies.
Saying he admires Israel for standing strong in “a hostile environment since its creation,” the ambassador notes that both countries have occupied the position of “David against Goliath,” and that in contrast to “the Babylonians and Phoenicians” and other ancient peoples of the region, Jews and Greeks are the only two peoples left standing today.
Ambassador’s Club president Eldan observes that this Israeli-Greek connection reflects his own ties with the ambassador – which during his over 40-year diplomatic career developed into a close working relationship. It was particularly important to hold the dinner and get the ambassador’s ear at this time, in May, he says, considering Greece will next month be vacating the helm of the Council of the European Union, a six-month post it took up in January.
When asked, Lampridis says he sees no ambivalence toward Israel on the part of the EU, and that “Europe has a positive role to play [in peace talks]; sanctions lead nowhere. I believe punishing does not achieve; do you win by punishing Palestinians? No.
“It is the same with the EU and Israel. Punishing [Israel] will not help; it would send Israel further [into a corner] and it has never crossed anyone’s mind.”
Rather, he says, the EU is aggressively dangling the carrot of an “unprecedented” investment incentives package for the achievement of peace.
What about the perception that the Jewish state and EU are approaching a breaking point, with a critical anti-Israel mass in the European body, especially with regard to the territories? While Lampridis acknowledges that “such voices are definitely there, they don’t reflect EU policy. There is no hint in Brussels of boycotting Israel.”
He also “rejects with absolute certainty” the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state, saying comparisons to a colonialist power are ridiculous.
Europe still has a crucial role to play on the world stage, maintains Lampridis, discussing the upcoming elections to the European Parliament that will be held in all EU member states later this month.
“Today, the concept of Europe is in question; but I say to everyone I meet how important the EU elections are. It will create a Europe for the next generation. Today, we deal with EU skepticism; economics in Greece [has helped cause this skepticism]. I see and understand the reasons – but what we see in Ukraine or Yugoslavia is the alternative. If we demolish the EU, this [disorder] is what will happen.
“The only solution is in deeper integration. I am 110 percent pro-EU, to the extent that I prefer to be European than Greek, if I have to choose.”
As for the Golden Dawn, the Greek party that has made use of Nazi symbolism, with xenophobia and racism as its platform – is it representative of Greek attitudes?
“I won’t mince words,” he says emphatically. “Break their bones – I hate these people. It [fascism] is in our history, but let’s look at the numbers: There were 7% who voted for them, but 92% voted against them. They represent evil. Israelis understand that most Greeks are not racist.”
What does Lampridis see for the future?
“Natural gas could be a good solution to the Cyprus division,” he says, agreeing Cyprus could be added to the triangle of relations with a democratic presence in the area. “It has been 40 years, and it is time to end it. It is a good opportunity. I am not naïve, though.”
Moreover, “We should cooperate with Arab states, as there is a new generation in the Arab world [that Israel can work with].” With more young people than ever having access to the Internet, the technological, educational, moral and social aspects of society are ripe for change, he says.
Responding to the fact that one of the dinner attendees was a Greek Jew who made aliya and now helps fellow Greeks escape their home country’s poor economic situation, Lampridis says he believes Athens’s economic situation to be improving. Indeed, he sees the mission of any Greek diplomat today as illustrating how the country is getting back on its feet.
According to the dinner attendees, the ambassador is doing a great job. Foreseeing new areas of collaboration with Greece, participants called him articulate and “maksim” (charming).
Lampridis was quick to return the compliment. Asked about the most beautiful thing he has seen in the Jewish state, he replies, “The development of the country over the past 30 years. Kol hakavod to Israel for its stamina, perseverance and innovation.”