NEWS

Israeli official sanguine

Relations between Greece and Israel are on a good track and they are set to improve further in the near future, especially in the commercial sector, the Israeli ambassador to Greece, Ram Aviram, said yesterday. In a briefing to Greek reporters, the ambassador also spoke about Olympic security, international terrorism, developments in the Middle East and claims of anti-Semitism in Greece. «As opposed to the idea that one may get from newspapers, relations (between Greece and Israel) are in the right direction,» Aviram said. The Israeli government is particularly seeking to «enhance the economic relations» between the two countries, he told journalists in his office. A Greek delegation under Dimitris Mardas, head of the Export Promotion Organization (OPE), visited Israel last week and signed an economic cooperation agreement with its local counterpart, the Israeli Export Institute, aiming at boosting trade between the two countries. Aviram commented on a recent controversy involving Greece’s most famous composer, Mikis Theodorakis, who was condemned by Israeli and Jewish officials for a comment he made earlier this month. «Today we may say that this small nation is at the root of evil and not of good,» Mikis Theodorakis had said. He later issued a statement playing down his original remarks, saying he was referring to Israeli government policies. The Greek government said it did not share the composer’s views but it respected his work. Such unfortunate events, Aviram stressed, help reinforce the often blurred line separating «legitimate criticism of government policies from stereotyping and generalizations.» But he made it clear that Theodorakis’s remarks «were over the line.» But the Israeli envoy distanced his government from a «travel advisory» issued by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center urging Jewish travelers to boycott Greece at the 2004 Olympics due to the government’s alleged failure to curb «growing anti-Semitism.» «We have nothing to do with the travel advisory,» Aviram said. The Israeli ambassador said he is «satisfied» with Greece’s security preparations ahead of next year’s Olympic Games in Athens, adding that intense efforts are being made to host a successful event. «We have to be on the alert, of course, but not specifically in Greece,» he told journalists. Asked about the recent wave of terrorist attacks in predominantly Muslim Turkey, the Israeli diplomat said that he ascribes no semiological shift to these acts. Like the terrorist blitz on September 11 in the United States, the Istanbul suicide bombings were an attack «on values that we all believe in,» he said. The blasts demonstrated that more targets are on the terrorists’ agenda, the diplomat pointed out. «Turkey has been chosen not only because (the terrorists) had the operational ability, but also because because Turkey represents another type of Islam,» he explained. Four bomb explosions killed a total of 57 people in attacks on two synagogues on November 15 and two other simultaneous bombings targeting the British Consulate and a London-based bank five days later. The Israeli envoy accentuated the need for more vigilance and called for «a well-coordinated war against terrorism.» Turning to the Middle East, Aviram brushed aside accusations that a controversial West Bank barrier will swell the ranks of extremists rather than protect Israelis against suicide attacks. Aviram said the wall is a necessary security measure as it «helps in preventing terror.» The diplomat said that the fence is not a temporary border and if an agreement were to be reached on its geography, «the wall will be removed.» Palestinians say the West Bank separation barrier is a disguised bid to annex terrain as it often diverges from Israel’s border to incorporate settlements. Although he expressed hope over the progress of talks on a US-backed peace plan, Aviram cast doubt on some recent, informal peace initiatives, referring to an alternative Middle East peace plan co-drafted by Palestinian officials and Israeli left-wingers that is to be signed next month in Geneva, Switzerland. Although the «Geneva Accords» are the most high-profile initiative, «it is not an official agreement» he said. «It only represents the wish of a certain part of the Israeli society to see a solution in a certain way. But there are others who see it differently,» he added. The official peace plan, also known as the «road map,» calls for a Palestinian state by 2005 but is less specific on the issue of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements. The road map has stalled because of joint non-compliance. Efforts have been made to kick-start negotiations as senior officials on both sides met yesterday in London to discuss the plan. Although Aviram acknowledged that the road map envisages a «mutual goal» that ought to be supported on both sides, he expressed fears that efforts could once again be held ransom to internal bickering among Palestinians, and especially to the blind rejectionism of Palestinian factions that he accused of having torpedoed similar initiatives in the past. «Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad are not willing to make any compromises,» Aviram said, adding that they never hesitated to breach ceasefires that they had previously agreed upon. It is these factions which are the main stumbling block on the path to peace, he said. «We have the military power in our hands, they say. So we will make make sure that you will not get there.»