NEWS

It’s a different world, says Israeli ambassador

The day after the terrorist attacks that struck at the heart of the United States, with a toll of civilians that is expected to be in the thousands, countries around the world were evaluating the new era that has begun. The United States sought to determine who was responsible for the carnage and groped for ways to respond. No credible claim of responsibility was made by last night, but growing suspicion focused on the Saudi millionaire terrorist Osama bin Laden and his group. This implied that the Middle East will be at the center of attention for a long time to come, with a terrible new dimension complicating its long and tangled history. If the terrorists’ actions grew out of the violence in the Middle East, they could contribute to an even greater cycle of violence. What the protagonists do now will determine the region’s future for a long time. And as we saw on Tuesday, a regional problem can suddenly become international, affecting lives at the other end of the world. Israeli officials, expressing horror, suggested that the world was waking up to the threat of suicide bombings which Israelis have had to live with for a long time now. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the terrorist attacks in the strongest terms, calling them not only a crime against the American people or government but against humanity. It is a monstrous crime. Kathimerini’s English Edition spoke with Israeli Ambassador David Sasson on a wide range of issues last week, following his return to Athens, where he served as ambassador from 1990 to 1996. He served as his country’s envoy to Belgrade between 1996 and 1999. The interview was held last week. But after Tuesday, everything changed. Below are excerpts from two conversations with Ambassador Sasson, who pulls no punches in his interpretation of events. He says the problem of terrorism should be dealt with at its root. He also argues in favor of keeping lines of communication open between Israelis and Palestinians in order to restore confidence which, he says, is close to zero. Mr. Ambassador, what day has dawned after the terrorist attacks on America? It is a different world. What we used to say up to yesterday afternoon no longer applies. It is a war. It’s a declaration of war against all the civilized world. It’s not necessarily against the United States or Israel. It’s against the free world, the free civilization, the liberal civilization. They want us to be like them. We shouldn’t. We have to fight it. We have to fight brutal senseless terror… We have to mobilize all our power to fight it… Now a new Hitler raises its head. Its name is terrorism. We met it years ago. Now the world should understand. They are declaring war on the free world. I have no other words. Will this affect the relationship of the United States and the European Union with the region? We do not consider it a war against Israel alone. We’re really convinced that it is a war against the free world and in this case there is no conflict between the US and Europe. Because the Europeans should begin to understand, because they understood by being forced to understand, not by being convinced. We have tried to convince them for years but did not succeed… We should join our efforts and we will find an answer to the terrorism. If we don’t fight one another… We should be politically courageous. Do you see any connection between the attacks on the US and the suicide bombings in the Middle East? How do you fight it? It is a system to commit suicide and we have to find an answer. There is no answer in our opinion but to catch them before they are leaving. Because once they have strapped the explosives to themselves you can do nothing. We have to reach those who are mobilizing them, who are giving them the belief that they are doing the correct thing. It is a war. It is not something simple. Will this strengthen Israel’s argument as to the threats that it faces? We are not looking to convince anyone. We want to secure our existence and make the world a safe place. You did not see the Israelis shooting in the air and celebrating at the news, like the Palestinians. It is not a question of whether it will help us or not. We are not living in this world by ourselves. We are living with others and we want to see a peaceful, civilized world… We want the people in Europe to open their eyes, to see before it is too late. That is what we are begging you to do… The Arabs are lying to the world… The foreign minister of Egypt said this is a provocation by the Israelis, to send Arabs to shoot in the air and celebrate… Now go and believe him – he is the foreign minister of Egypt… Those terrorists will turn against them, because they are the next target. How will this affect Yasser Arafat? Well, he condemned it immediately. He rushed to condemn it. He is a real survivor. Of course, I think it is the propaganda system in the Arab countries that is to blame, that is inflaming their citizens and now they are dancing in the streets. Will Arafat meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres? The meeting was supposed to be yesterday (Tuesday) but it was canceled because Arafat is playing the desirable but unreachable woman… Now nobody thinks about it because everyone is shocked by what happened in the United States. Will Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou meet with the two if he goes to Israel on Saturday? He is supposed to meet Arafat and Peres if things develop on schedule, if the airport is open, and so on. The program is for him to see Peres. This is fixed. We’re still working on fixing a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. With Arafat it’s not my business. In the last year, has Israel felt alone in the world, with the intifada? Of course. It’s a very bad feeling. What is responsible for this? Several reasons. Maybe the success of Arafat to present himself as an underdog when he is not. Don’t forget that he started the intifada… A strong country also has the right to survive, to protect itself. It should not be naked to any kind of attack. But is the Israeli reaction to stone-throwing youths not too harsh? Stones can kill. If a stone hits you on the head you will be dead. It doesn’t matter if it is a bullet or a stone. So what are they expecting? I have heard that in Greece they like Yasser Arafat as a revolutionary, almost above Che Guevara. There is not the slightest comparison. He is so far from being Che Guevara. He wanted a state, he got it. I don’t see any revolution. But that is the image. He succeeded. On the other hand, the world continues loving to hate Arik Sharon. I can tell you Arik Sharon as prime minister is completely different from Arik Sharon, the leader of the paratroopers. Is this what has won him backing from most Israelis? In a way yes. And he is showing to be the prime minister who is not rushing to retaliate… And he is the one who authorized Peres to go and have meetings with Arafat. We have these facts, but still the world loves to hate Arik Sharon and still the world loves to love Yasser Arafat. But for God’s sake, there are some changes. But you cannot fight the image of violence. I agree with you on the image. It’s very bad to have an armed soldier shooting at people who are unarmed… How are we going to answer, with stones? They are there trying to protect certain things, and they are being stoned. Let me go to the terrorists – they do not deserve the name kamikaze. The Japanese did not throw their planes against civilian centers. How do you think he should be stopped? Because when he is in the street, with the explosives strapped to his body, he cannot be stopped. Why are people prepared to kill themselves to attack Israel? Drugs, dissatisfaction with life, because of a broken love affair… You don’t believe there are ideological or religious reasons? Over what ideology? They got what they wanted. But Yasser Arafat has two illusions. That he is the modern Salahaddin [the 13th century warrior who routed the crusaders] and he doesn’t want to have peace with Israel, so he won’t appear in that way in Arab history… It’s only the Arab propaganda that is trying to present this as an ideological dispute. Because I know that, as a diplomat, when you are given 97 percent of what you want, you take it with both hands. So what is the way out? There is a way out. I want to live peacefully with the Palestinians. There is no other way but to live together. Let them stop the propaganda that teaches them to hate Israel, that tells them that we are monsters. How? By not describing the Israelis from the first class of elementary school as if they are animals. You are putting poison in the heart and brain of the people from the very beginning of life. Why? If they will understand. .. that nothing can be gained by power, certainly not from Israel, I will be among the first to rush to sign a peace treaty. Are there lines of communication between the two sides? We are doing things. The economic pressure is being reduced. But there is big hope that the meeting (that was not wanted by Arafat) will be held and will be followed by a chain of meetings so that tension can be reduced. And bit by bit we can work toward creating confidence by showing that we have good will… I’m not talking about one side doing this, I’m talking about both sides. Now confidence is close to zero. It should be restored and rebuilt. Greece, Turkey and Israel Have Greece, Cyprus or Turkey been doing anything to facilitate diplomacy in solving the Middle East problem? Turkey no. Greece within the frame of the EU, but not in any separate initiative. And certainly not Cyprus. What about bilateral relations between Israel and Greece? Relations between Israel and Greece are good and could be much better. I hope to help the relationship flourish. In the economy, I believe we can complement each other. The world has become a very small village, the Middle East is a very small neighborhood. Somehow, being what we are, the Israelis and Greece can complete one another. So now this is one part. My personal belief is that the destiny of Greece and Israel, two very ancient civilizations, is to be together. Sooner or later. The sooner the better. In very many fields: Culture, economy, science, music, medical cooperation, and so forth. Is there progress in these relations? Yes. We are starting a joint program with the theater, the National Theater of Athens and a leading theater of Israel. There are some other projects with music. I’m speaking about joint things, not one group performing in the other’s country. How have relations developed with Turkey over the past year? Your defense cooperation? It’s well developed. I won’t deny it. I want you to understand that for us it’s a vital relationship. We are a country that is fighting for its life. Turkey is a country that borders Iran, Iraq, and Syria, our worst enemies. But this relationship is not at the expense of any other country. And we have a very close relationship with Cyprus. I do believe there is a change in Turkey. We know they are a Muslim country but, by definition, they are not following the traditional Islamic policy. They are trying to build the open society that was the dream of Ataturk. Has there been a chill with the intifada? They condemn us. But nothing has changed in our relationship. Security and 2004 How is security cooperation going with regard to Athens 2004? Within a month it will be decided with which group to go ahead concerning the security of the 2004 Olympiad. Whether it will be a certain grouping of Israelis and Americans, or Greeks and Israelis, or others. There are several groups in the running. There is a special subcommittee dealing with security including official representatives of several countries, among them Israel. We are there and we are giving advice, government to government. But the functioning of security per se will be done by this consortium or that private company. Governments are cooperating at the consultant level, up to the highest level. This exists and there are meetings every week or 10 days. It is a joint effort of exchanging experience. Then all these ideas will be moved to companies that are specializing in this and employing certain people who are serving in anti-terrorist units in Israel, England, the United States, France and whoever is a member of this company.