Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he believes that the proven and likely energy reserves in Israel, Cyprus and Crete are more than enough to support natural gas exports to Europe even through an East Med pipeline.
In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, Netanyahu stresses that an East Med pipeline is a real possibility right now, while also touching on the particularly close relationship that has been forged between Greece and Israel on cooperation issues in the fields of security and military training.
He underscores the assistance provided by the Hellenic Air Force to fight the forest fires that threatened Haifa last November, while also emphasizing the importance that developing the innovation and high-technology sectors has had for Israel.
Netanyahu does not rule out Israeli investments in Greece, while he also talks about the importance of Thessaloniki to Jewish history and culture.
When you first started this relationship with Greece, about six or seven years ago, did you ever think the two countries would become so close?
Actually I thought it was unnatural that it wasn’t that close because Israel and Greece and Cyprus are three democracies at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, and we have common cultural roots. Jewish and Greek culture basically formed the basis of the modern Western civilizations. I thought it was absurd that we weren’t close, that we were distant for reasons that didn’t make any sense, so when I met [George] Papandreou by accident in a restaurant in Moscow…
So, it is true that it all started accidentally?
I went to the Pushkin cafe after finishing a visit in Moscow and I was sitting with my wife and a waiter came over and said, “The prime minister of Greece would like to talk to you.” I said, “By all means,” and we started having a conversation. We were the last people in the restaurant – we kept them open – and immediately following that there was every reason to form this bond – cultural, economic, in security, in tourism – every conceivable reason to do so and no reason not to do so. Shortly after, Papandreou came to Israel I came here, and the rest – I don’t want to say it’s history because we are making history in the process – seems so natural today. Even through changing administrations it’s a solid bond.
How has this relationship evolved?
First of all, a lot of Israelis have come here, and I mean 400,000 Israelis go to Greece every year, and that’s up an enormous percentage, and also to Cyprus. Secondly, you know our militaries have on occasion joint exercises and we cooperate on the question of terrorism. Third, we are now discussing something which, if it materializes, has I think tremendous possibilities for all our countries, and that’s an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline that would connect the gas fields of Israel and Cyprus through Greece to Italy and to Europe. And fourth, there is everything else. And we are doing just about everything else, including on this visit, where we discussed the internship of young Greek and Cypriot students and engineers in Israeli not only at Israeli universities but Israeli high-tech companies. This is the best form of technology transfer that I know of.
Give us a sense of the area’s energy potential, because there is a lot of talk about this all over the world. And why are Greece, Cyprus and Israel linked?
We have substantial gas reserves in Israel that are already proven, proven gas reserves, smaller but still substantial, in Cyprus, and possible gas reserves off the shores of Crete. So we are talking about big reserves that can go naturally to the European market. If we pool our resources it will cost a lot less to build a pipeline for potential companies than for any one of us alone. That obviously makes sense.
When do you think there will be a final decision as to whether the East Med pipeline is feasible or not? And would it rule out a similar pipeline going through Turkey?
No, we have enough gas to support multiple pipelines. The Eastern Mediterranean pipeline was considered a fantasy a year, year-and-a-half ago, and since then we have begun to explore it more systematically and scientifically. There was an initial survey done by a Greek company – actually a Greek-Italian company – and they came back and said it’s feasible, and it’s doable, and it’s profitable. So now we are going to the next phase and we are going to check it even more carefully. But if it’s a go, we’ll go.
As you know there is a looming crisis on the horizon after Cyprus announced there will be some drilling and Turkey reacted. Are you concerned about tension in the region?
We always hope that things will be resolved peacefully.
Do you think the Cyprus issue will be resolved, should be resolved?
Well, it’s been 44 years I think – something like that – and if they can start and finish it in the next four months we will be delighted, believe me.
How much further do you think the security relationship could develop between Greece and Israel?
I think there is a natural partnership. It’s reflected right now in something that affects people’s lives – even their ability to live, but you don’t think about it – and that’s our ability to send firefighting planes to each other. This is not military, this is rescue operations. We had some fires in Israel and Greek pilots came recently and actually saved a piece of Haifa, our Thessaloniki by the sea. Greek pilots came with your planes which have certain capabilities that our planes don’t have. And in a future crisis you may need our planes that have capabilities your planes don’t have. Instead of each of us buying these fleets, we have one fleet. It’s a joint fleet – yours, ours and Cyprus’s, and including Croatia too. Recently our pilots flew to Cyprus and put out significant forest fires. This is an illustration of the fact that we have common interests that affect the well-being of our people. On security this is always the case and certainly on fighting terror: It’s always good to have friends.
Do you think there is any chance there will be some Israeli investment in Greece? You have a very developed high-tech sector in Israel that we are very interested in. Do you see any potential?
Yes, I do, I do. I think it’s possible, but we have to look at how these things happen. How did the Israeli high-tech sector emerge? It emerged when Israelis went to work in the start-up companies of Silicon Valley and then came and replicated it in Israel, and American investment followed these Israeli entrepreneurs who came back from the US and built these incredible companies. So, I think in many ways the best way to replicate this for Greece is to do exactly what we did.
Have a few dozen – in the beginning – maybe more Greek engineers and students come and spend time in Israel, in Israeli companies. Let them absorb the special culture, the start-up culture, let them make friends with their Israeli counterparts. You know some of them are going to be entrepreneurs and some of them will want to live here. Maybe all of them would like to live here, or maybe they would like to raise their children in the Greek culture, speaking Greek, in their own homeland. This is what happened to us. Israelis came back to Israel. Greeks can go back after spending these few months or few years in Israel and you will be amazed at what happens, because we are testament to that. It happened in our case and we are now the other place in the world in terms of concentration of technological innovation: There’s the United States, closely followed by Israel.
We’ll be very happy if the same thing happens in Greece, because it will give you a tremendous sense of hope for the future and a tremendous economy.
Trump, Iran and Israel’s diplomatic ‘sprint’
On the subject of the United States, do you think that Donald Trump’s administration is bringing more realism to American foreign policy in regard to the Middle East and is this likely to slow down or accelerate a potential solution to the Palestinian problem?
I think that the most important thing that has happened is the reappraisal of Iran. I think there is an appraisal now that Iran is not the solution but the source of many of the region’s problems and that is, in my opinion, a correct assessment, and I welcome it.
The second thing is that there is a renewed interest and commitment to fight ISIS, the other form of Islamic fundamentalism that threatens both the Arab countries and the non-Arabs in this region and the world, the whole world. I think that is definitely the focus of current US policy and I welcome it. I think it serves peace because I think that when you fight these terrorists and these extremists you create a space for peace.
I’ll tell you something else that happened in a peculiar way: The Iranian deal – which I think was not a good deal, to put it mildly – I think it brought the Arab states and Israel closer to one another, and ultimately that can help with the peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Is there something in the works right now? Will there be a renewed peace effort?
Well, I wish you success with your talks about Cyprus and you wish us success in our efforts with the Palestinians.
How does it feel to be the prime minister of Israel at a time when there is a sort of security black hole around you with Libya, Syria and so on? How much does this situation worry you?
I think it causes concerns for the entire world because entire countries have collapsed. When we look around, when the Arab countries look around and they say, “Who can help us against this void that’s been filled by militant Islam, led by the Shia variety, led by Iran or the Sunni variety, led by ISIS, Daesh?” They say, “Well, Israel.” So they don’t think of Israel any more as their enemy but as their partner, I would even say their indispensable partner in fighting this common challenge for security, safety and the future, so that’s actually a welcome change. But how does it feel? It feels that you are wanted and appreciated. And I know that this may sound strange to you, but this is what is happening to Israel. Because of the potency of its technology and its military intelligence, because of its progress in the economy and innovation, Israel is reviving its international relations with the great powers of Asia – I was just in China, [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is coming to Israel in a few weeks – and the same is true for other Asian countries and Africa. I was recently, within a year, on a second tour in Africa, meeting dozens of leaders. They all want Israel back and the same is true for the other continents.
And I am here now, in the Eastern Mediterranean, in a beautiful city in Greece, meeting with my friends the prime minister of Greece [Alexis Tsipras] and the president of Cyprus [Nicos Anastasiades].
Israel is in a diplomatic sprint, I would say.
My last question is why is Thessaloniki so important in Jewish culture?
Because it is one of the oldest Jewish cities on Earth. Jews have been here since the third century BC, which means we are talking about 2,400 years, and there was a vibrant Jewish community here that was expanded after the Jews were expelled from Spain.
My father was a great historian, a great scholar of the Spanish Inquisition, and he often told me how the Jews came from Spain, many of them, to Thessaloniki. So Thessaloniki was considered a tremendous place of Jewish culture, a tremendous Jewish community. And of course it was nearly completely destroyed in the Holocaust. Those who survived remember Thessaloniki with great affection, and the decision today to build a Holocaust museum resonates in our hearts and also is a sign of this ongoing partnership and friendship between Greece and Israel.
I was going to bring here a survivor from Thessaloniki who is 93 years old and I promised him that he would come with me on this visit, which for him was the closing of a circle. Just as he was about to board the plane, though, the doctor told him, “You are not going anywhere.” He was in the hospital, so I asked his daughter and his son to come here. They represented him. But this is something that both commemorates a tremendous community that was lost and at the same time our commitment to make sure that such a tragedy never reoccurs.
Nevertheless, I am going to visit the Jewish community, which is still here, and I appreciate it. I want to thank them and the mayor [Yiannis Boutaris] and the government, for proposing and carrying out this idea of a museum. We cherish the past and we learn from it.