There are no limits to the scope of cooperation between his country and Greece, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tells Kathimerini ahead of his visit to Athens on the invitation of his Greek counterpart Prokopis Pavlopoulos. “We like to say the sky is the limit, but perhaps, as we are neighbors on the Mediterranean, the sea is the limit,” he says poignantly in regard to ties between the two countries, pointing to the areas of security and the fight against terrorism, of technology, medicine, agriculture, bilateral trade and tourism.
In regard to terrorism, Rivlin stresses that “Israel has stood on the frontline against this threat for many years, and we stand ready and willing to assist all our allies and friends in protecting their people.”
The Israeli president also notes that his country has already achieved “historic agreements” with its neighbors Jordan and Egypt, and believes the same can be accomplished with the Palestinians. “We must find a way through understanding, building trust, building confidence, and through mutual recognition,” he says.
How would you define Israeli-Greek relations?
Firstly, it was an honor to host President Pavlopoulos in Jerusalem just under two years ago, and it is a great honor to receive such warm hospitality in Greece. Our relations are as fruitful and strong today as our shared history is rich and long. Of course we have had difficult moments in this history, but our relationship is very literally rooted in the ground. Archaeologists in Israel and in Greece are always uncovering new discoveries about the lives of ancient Greece and ancient Israel, of the way our peoples lived in our homelands thousands of years ago. We of course fought a great battle for Jerusalem, but still the name Alexandra, after Alexander the Great, is popular in Jewish communities for the special relationship he had at the time with the High Priest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And today, we are also exploring together in the ground, deep in the soil. But we are not looking for history, we are looking for the future. Together, both of us, together with Cyprus, we are working together to secure energy for our peoples. This cooperation is based on shared values. Greece is the birthplace of democracy, but I have to say Judaism, the Torah, the Ethics of the Fathers – these are the birthplace of democratic values: The idea that every human being is created equally in the image of God, the idea that the majority opinion should rule. These are Jewish ideas, and democratic ideas, and they are Israeli values as a Jewish democratic state.
Today, we are neighbors on the Mediterranean. We share opportunities, and we also share threats. Both our peoples have felt the earthquakes of the instability in the Middle East. We have a duty to stand together and face these challenges, along with the opportunities. I hope my visit will go a long way to furthering this special friendship and cooperation.
How concerned are you about the rise of populist and national extreme political forces in Europe and worldwide?
While I am here we will mark International Holocaust Memorial Day. This day is a reminder that “Never Again,” is not just for the Jewish people. Never Again means Never Again. Humanity has already failed in keeping this promise. And once again extremism is on the rise. The Jewish people may well be the first to raise our concerns, but we are never the last. The whole world, the whole free world, needs to face this threat together. It has to be done with education. It has to be done with legislation. And it has to be done with law enforcement. I appreciate very much, along with all the Jewish people, the great efforts Greece is doing to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. Of course, there is a long way to go for us all, and Israel stands with you, ready to help at every turn.
It is important to remember that nationalism, and being patriotic does not mean hating others – inside or outside of the country. It is about being proud of your country, and knowing that the best way for nations to live together in peace is with strong identities, in understanding and acceptance of each other.
Do you believe that US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem will hinder further efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue?
President Trump recognized reality. A reality that Alexander the Great recognized when he came to the Holy Land. A reality that ambassadors, ministers, prime ministers, presidents, princes and kings all recognize when they come to Israel. Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel. It has been for nearly 70 years, and it has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. There is no denying this basic fact.
I believe that peace will only come when we all face reality. And the reality is that the Jews and Arabs of this land are not doomed to live together, it is our destiny to live together. We are both here, and we have no choice. We must find a way through understanding, building trust, building confidence, and through mutual recognition. In that sense, making the clear statement that the world should recognize the Jewish people’s roots in this land, its connection to the city of Jerusalem, and the right of Israel as a modern, sovereign, democratic state – this should in no way hinder peace, it should bring it closer.
We all need to face reality. And I truly wish that the Palestinian president would make the brave steps to do the same.
How do you view Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong opposition to this decision?
Of course I understand that for Muslim nations this is not something that is easy to accept. But the Muslim world, and the whole international community must decide what it wants for the people of this region. Prosperity and security, or instability and conflict.
What is the potential for further strengthening security cooperation between Israel, Greece and Cyprus?
Security is just one part of the cooperation between us, and the potential is so very great. We like to say the sky is the limit, but perhaps, as we are neighbors on the Mediterranean, the sea is the limit. We can, and we must continue to expand our cooperation in a number of fields. Of course our cooperation in security and cyber-security, as well as in energy, is crucial. But so is academic cooperation, technology in agriculture and water, in medicine, in bilateral trade, as well as in cultural exchanges and tourism.
On the issue of security in particular though. The whole world today faces the threat of terrorism. Israel has stood on the frontline against this threat for many years, and we stand ready and willing to assist all our allies and friends in protecting their people. Terror must not be allowed to raise its ugly head. And we all have a duty to stand against it.
What is the main threat to Israeli security right now?
Israel certainly does face many threats. Israel knows how to defend itself. We have the most moral and highly trained security forces in the world, and I am deeply proud of them.
When we talk about the threats we face, at the root of the most dangerous challenges is certainly Iran. Not just because of their nuclear ambitions to wipe the Jewish nation off the map. Not just because of their global support for terrorism. Not just because of their desire to spread hatred and extremism across the world – all while they oppress and tyrannize their own people. But because, for Iran, these are not just ambitions. They are working now, as we speak, to wreak instability and drive conflicts across the Middle East. They are forging forward with their goal of establishing a territorial corridor from Tehran, through Iraq – or what is left of it – through the ruins of Syria, into Lebanon where they already have a proxy army, Hezbollah, with 100,000 missiles trained on Israel, all the way to the Mediterranean. This is not just a threat for Israel. This is a real threat for the integrity of Lebanon, and once they reach the Mediterranean, for Greece, Cyprus and indeed for the whole world. I understand the European desire to find a way to work with Iran. But they cannot be allowed to continue down this path of brutal destruction as the world looks on, or worse, the other way.
Is a two-state solution feasible?
I am not a member of the Knesset. I was for many years, I was speaker of the Knesset twice, I was a minister in the cabinet. When I was a politician, I could say this or that about possible solutions, and I did. Today, as president, I am just like any other citizen, and I must follow the decisions of the representatives of the people of Israel, the elected members of parliament. The government – like all governments before them – will continue to reach out in peace to our neighbors. We have managed to reach historic agreements with Jordan, with Egypt, and we dream of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Any peace agreement will require the Knesset’s approval, and I believe wholeheartedly we can find such a solution. But what I can say is that whatever the solution may be, no plan will truly bring lasting peace unless there is trust and understanding between the peoples of this land.
Right now, there is no political process. The Palestinians refuse to talk, to negotiate, to even cooperate in some basic areas. So until we are able to come together around the negotiating table, I want to think about what we can do now. When I spoke at the EU two years ago, I spoke of several different areas we can work on to build trust and improve the lives of people on the ground. The international community must also play a part in helping build this trust, and in making the Palestinians understand that there is no other way but to talk.