YAIR LAPID

Israel-Greece a ‘values-based strategic alliance,’ says FM

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Relations between Greece and Israel will continue to develop and bloom “regardless of any other developments in the region,” states Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid in this exclusive interview with Kathimerini. Lapid describes Greek-Israeli relations as “a values-based strategic alliance between two nations who share values and a vision for stability, innovation, democracy and prosperity.”

When asked about the possibility of a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, Lapid notes that his country “certainly hopes to constructively engage with countries who show a desire to play a positive role in promoting prosperity and stability,” and states that the Israeli government is exploring the possibility. He does stress, however, that improved relations between Israel and any third country will never come at the expense of its bonds with Greece, which Lapid called “strategic.”

The Israeli minister also talks about the prospects created for the Middle East by the Abraham Accords. He highlights that the agreements have allowed for a “new reality to emerge in the Middle East.” He also refers to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and firmly states that “Iran can never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.” In fact, Lapid uses the occasion to thank Greece for its contributions in favor of establishing tighter monitoring by the Board of Governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The minister also believes that despite its strategic pivot toward the Pacific, the United States will maintain a presence in the Mediterranean, citing the 3+1 (Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and the US) framework as an example and stressing that relations between the US and Israel remain the cornerstone for stability in the Middle East.

The Greek-Israeli relationship has been seriously extended in the last decade. The two countries have developed cooperations in a lot of areas, including the defense sector, economic affairs and people-to-people ties, and also are building a genuine understanding concerning regional realities. Tell us about the next steps in enhancing the bilateral ties.

The bilateral relationship between Israel and Greece is not only a multifaceted strategic partnership, as demonstrated by our ties in security and energy; it is a values-based strategic alliance between two nations who share values and a vision for stability, innovation, democracy and prosperity. This alliance was on display during the recent trilateral summit between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in Jerusalem. And in my many conversations with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Israel and in Washington, we’ve discussed a number of areas in which we believe we can deepen the bilateral relationship between our two countries. We have burgeoning defense ties. We have joint projects in energy that support thousands of jobs between our two countries. Our physical proximity means we face many of the same challenges posed by climate change. In the midst of the pandemic, we increased our cooperation in healthcare, and now, as we overcome the pandemic, we must act to restore the flow of tourists between our two countries, as tourism is a key anchor of our strong people-to-people ties. The common thread throughout all these areas is a multidimensional partnership that’s a source of stability, prosperity, and solutions for various challenges.

Recently there has been some discussion in Athens about a certain rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. How could this affect Greek-Israeli relations? 

The bilateral relationship between Israel and Greece and the trilateral relationship between Israel, Greece and Cyprus are both of the utmost importance to Israel. These partnerships stand on their own and will continue to thrive regardless of any other developments in the region. Israel certainly hopes to constructively engage with countries who show a desire to play a positive role in promoting prosperity and stability, and we’re exploring this possibility. However, an improvement of relations between Israel and any country is never at the expense of our relations with other countries and we see our ties with Greece as strategic.

Do you believe that Turkey has changed and can contribute to peace and stability in the region?

As I said, Israel certainly hopes to constructively engage with other countries who show a desire to play a positive role in promoting prosperity and stability. We’re constantly exploring such possibilities, and we are as always committed to transparency with our Greek friends in this regard. But it’s for exactly that reason – our desire to engage with countries who play a positive role in promoting prosperity and stability – that Israel values its partnership with Greece. This partnership is rooted in common interests and values. We’re looking forward to maintaining and strengthening these partnerships, which play a key role in promoting regional stability.

The Abraham Accords have provided the region with an additional element on the possibility of cooperation between Israel and the Arab countries. What are the next steps? How are the negotiations with other Arab countries proceeding? Will there be news in the coming months about more accords?

In the past year, we’ve seen a new reality emerge in the Middle East. The diplomatic, economic, security, cultural and people-to-people ties brought about by the normalization agreements have led to greater partnerships, prosperity and stability across the region. Barely a day goes by without a new agreement signed, a new cooperation initiative unveiled, or an historic official visit occurring. And it’s not just with our new partners. We’re also deepening our cooperation with our historic regional partners, Egypt and Jordan.

Now, looking forward, I believe there to be many more countries who face the same challenges and threats as we do. This is especially true in the Middle East, where the challenges we face don’t stop at national borders: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and international terrorism led by Iran. I also believe there to be many countries in our region and beyond who understand what I’ve said many times: In the future, those who cooperate will lead, and those who isolate will fall behind. One great example of such cooperation we already see today is the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which brings together Israel, Greece and others from across our region on matters of energy development, and this can be a model for similar efforts in other fields. So yes, I’m optimistic more countries will join the circle of peace, and our hand is outstretched for peace.

The United States and the international community have been engaging again in bringing Iran back to the table through the JCPOA or other possible negotiation platforms. Do you believe there can be a real nuclear deal?

Iran can never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear Iran will thrust the entire Middle East into a nuclear arms race at a moment when tremendous strides are being made to expand the circle of peace in the region. It will embolden Iran and its terrorist proxies to further expand their terrorist activity across the region and the entire world. The assessment is well-founded and clear. The Iranians are coming to talks for only one reason – to get sanctions lifted. They need money to fund their global terrorist network, including their Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, and to fund their continued race toward a nuclear weapon.

As I told French President Emmanuel Macron in our meeting in Paris just last month, preventing a nuclear Iran did not end with the resumption of talks in Vienna. The formula to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran is straightforward: tighter sanctions, tighter supervision, [and] conduct any talks from a position of strength. And there must also be a credible military threat as well. If the Iranians think the world does not seriously intend to stop them, they will race toward the bomb. We must make it clear that the world will not allow this to happen.

And let me also say that when it comes to tighter supervision, we’re grateful to Greece for its contribution on the IAEA Board of Governors. Because we know that Greece shares our concerns about nuclear proliferation and can be an important factor in addressing this issue in international fora.

Israel has been a technological pioneer in a lot of sectors. Can it become a regional factor in the promotion of viable solutions to tackle the climate crisis too?

Israel doesn’t merely have the potential to become a regional player in combating climate change: Israel is already today a global player in combating climate change. This leadership starts at home: We’ve committed nearly US$5 billion to the fight against climate change, including unprecedented investments in increasing energy efficiency and entrepreneurship in renewable energy. We’re reducing our carbon emissions toward the goal of being carbon neutral in 2050, including paving the way for electric vehicles to enter the Israeli market and investing in public transportation to reduce emissions. I also believe that we government officials have a responsibility to lead the way and set a positive example, and that’s why the Foreign Ministry at my initiative just installed solar panels on our roof.

As a global green energy and technology superpower, Israel has a critical role to play in the global fight against climate change. And we’re embracing this role: It’s not a coincidence that Israel had the second-largest delegation of any country at the Glasgow climate conference. As I’ve said many times, in the face of immense global challenges such as climate change, countries who cooperate will thrive, and those who do not will fall behind. To that end, Israel just signed onto a major “water for green energy” pact with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. And in the Mediterranean, we see a huge opportunity to deepen our bilateral ties with Greece and our trilateral ties with Greece and Cyprus through continued joint efforts to address climate change, whether it’s activity through the Cyprus Climate Change Initiative, joint projects in research and development, or collaboration in firefighting.

I’m proud to serve as minister of foreign affairs and to lead a ministry full of capable, committed professionals who work day in, day out to turn these opportunities into reality.

Do you believe that the so-called “Pacific pivot” of the United States will change the security environment in our broader region? If so, how can the new challenges be addressed and how do you view the role of Israel within this framework?

Israel and the United States share a special relationship based on shared values and mutual interests. This friendship and partnership is unbreakable and will continue to serve as a cornerstone for regional stability and security in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Additionally, many of the shared values and interests which form the basis for the US-Israel relationship are the same shared values and interests which form the basis of the Israel-Greece relationship. That’s why the 3+1 framework – Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and the US – is such an effective forum for addressing regional and even global challenges.