Letter from Thessaloniki

The gust of anti-Israel sentiment billowing across Greece, after Israeli warplanes yesterday made one of their deadliest assaults on Palestinian militants across the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, is understandable – since our country has always pursued a policy of friendship with the Arabs in general and with the Palestinians in particular. There is a long-standing relationship based on both contemporary and historical factors. Greece shares with the Arabs a common background of subjugation by the Ottomans as well as similar religious beliefs, as a large number of Christian Arabs are of the Greek Orthodox faith. Furthermore, there is (or rather, there was) a large number of prosperous Greek communities that have flourished in Arab states, the largest of these having existed in Egypt before foreign resident businessmen were forced to leave the country in the 1950s. Supporting the Palestinian struggle for an independent homeland, Greece was, incidentally, one of the first countries to call for Israel’s evacuation of all occupied Arab land. In addition to that, and as the politics of the Middle East grew more complex after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Greece supported Israel’s right to exist within safe and internationally guaranteed borders. However, Greece has only recognized Israel’s de facto right to statehood since 1948, and remained diplomatically represented for some 45 years in Tel Aviv – not in Jerusalem as the Israelis wanted – on a lower-than-embassy level. Diplomatic relations were upgraded to maintaining an embassy in 1990. At present, the dominant feeling of irritation here comes from the fact that the Arabs were those who seemed to be walking toward peace with Israel – and then walking away again. The constant American refusal to see that there are Arabs and then there are Arabs – as well as Israelis and Israelis – and that some of them deserve American support is more likely in the long run to put Israel in danger than help it, as Washington has turned almost all public opinion against it by unconditionally supporting the Israeli attack. «These people are nothing but thugs,» Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in Texas two days ago. «So Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas.» The facts contradict him, as the violence has left more than 200 people dead and nearly another 400 wounded, while, on the other side, in Israel, there were just one or two victims. Of course, the question now is how US President-elect Barack Obama will handle the situation. Sure enough, some Arabs are bad. And, if they try to kill Americans, America is entitled to kill them back and hope that the counter-terrorist violence works. Now back to Israeli-Greek relations. In the mid-1970s, dictated by the need to have the Arab support for Athens’s Cyprus policies after the Turkish invasion of the island as well as to ensure stable oil supplies from the Arab oil producers, this country appeared to lean strongly toward the Arabs. Here we need to ask whether the Greeks have gotten any of the economic benefits they were going after in dealing with the Arabs. Certainly not. Greece has certainly not received the kind of investment promised in the 1980s during the PASOK administrations, when Andreas Papandreou followed an actively pro-Arab policy, culminating in the granting of diplomatic status to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose connection to terrorism had made it, at the time, a pariah to most Western nations. However, even while PASOK increased its contacts with hard-line Arab states, such as Iraq, Algeria and Libya, the Greek socialist regime also followed, discreetly, a parallel policy of greater accommodation with Israel. However, with the death of the pro-PLO prime minister, Papandreou, in June 1996 and the improvement in US-Greece relations, as well as progress in the Middle East peace negotiations, there was a distinct shift toward Israel. Now, once again, Palestine is still the prime rallying cry. Yet the ideas about Israel held by many Arabs have changed greatly since Israel humiliated them and fought itself into existence in 1948 – a fact that, then, gained it some admiration from the Greek public. All the same and for all its equivocation, Palestinian Arabs have in recent years come within an inch or so of accepting the right of Israel to live in peace, provided it is not an Israel that smothers the hope of the Palestinian homeland. That last inch or so could have been bridged – understandably always with American help – if it weren’t for yesterday’s air strikes by Israel – «the worst in living memory,» as the Gazans have described them. Focusing on the barbaric nature of the Israeli military action and consistently ignoring the provocations by the Arab – or Palestinian – side, which drove Israel to respond, Greek media often filters the news through the prism of some sort of antisemitism disguised as political correctness. At any given moment, Greek public opinion is a swirl of superstition, misinformation and prejudice. Repeatedly there are also incidents of linguistic confusion: i. e. «Israelitis» (Israelite or Jew) and «Israilinos» (citizen of Israel) are often confused. As for semiology, or the «science» of signs, Jerusalem played quite a trick on Athens when it recently named an Israeli-Arab as its ambassador to Greece. As matters now stand, Ambassador Ali Yahya, who is presently serving in our country, is a Muslim born in a Palestinian village that became part of Israel in 1948.

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