‘We are strong despite the very fact we are small’

‘We are strong despite the very fact we are small’

Following a five-year stint in Athens, Israeli Ambassador Irit Ben-Abba returns home leaving bilateral relations at an unprecedented level. In this interview with Kathimerini ahead of her return to Jerusalem, from where she plans to keep monitoring developments “from not so far away,” Ben-Abba expresses her attachment to Greece and its people.

Abba says she is fascinated by people’s pride in their culture and heritage while underlining the substantial efforts over the previous years to fight anti-Semitism.

While hailing trilateral cooperation with the US, the Israeli envoy holds that it should in the long term include Turkey, although she does express reservations about the country’s future under the guidance of President Recep Tayyip Erodgan.

How do you feel after five years in Athens given that Greek-Israeli relations have probably reached an unprecedented level? 

I feel very sad that I have to leave. I like the place, I like the people, and I think our relations have really reached a very interesting stage. On one hand, I feel that I’m leaving when we are in the middle of progressing. I hope this is not the peak; we still have a long way to go. So, in that sense, I am satisfied we have reached that level, but I am also sorry I am leaving when we still have a lot of work to do to reach an even higher level in our relations. I truly believe we have come a long way since 2010. We started with the government of PASOK, when George Papandreou was prime minister, so this was the beginning of trying to get closer. Then we institutionalized things under [Antonis] Samaras’ government. There was the first government meeting in 2013. With SYRIZA, we made very quick, important and positive moves in five years. We not only institutionalized only our bilateral relations, making them much stronger and larger in scope, but also started the trilateral and then, the 3+1. And now, I think it’s about time we made “the great leap forward,” as I call it. We need to accelerate on all fronts. We will have to wait a little bit until after the elections in Israel when we have a new government to restart the trilateral process. There’s a new government in Greece and it would be very appropriate if the two new governments met. And there is also the trilateral. We have to do this in the very first month of the new governments in Israel and in Greece and, of course include Cyprus. The 3+1 started in March. It’s a very interesting process. We are now sharing some ideas about how to work this out because it’s the trilateral plus one. We definitely don’t want the trilateral to be jeopardized by the 3+1, so we have to find all those areas where there is an added value from the US participation. We’re talking about a huge superpower with three very small countries, so how do we match this sizewise, etc? This is a challenge. But there are some very interesting ideas that are being raised on paper now, not only floating in the air, and I’m quite sure that in the next few days we will clarify things. The idea is to establish working groups on various topics where there is an interest among all the parties to collaborate and for which there can be an added value from the American participation. We are talking about various topics and we have to sit down and create a good framework. So, this will definitely be the scenario for the next government here in Greece.  I’m very satisfied to hear from everyone that we meet, from the new prime minister down, that relations with Israel are very important for this government as well. I heard what Foreign Minister [Nikos] Dendias said in Parliament about the trilateral and also relations with Israel. He specifically mentioned relations with Israel as being very strategic for Greece. So, these are very encouraging signs.

Do you believe the two sides can strengthen cooperation in terms of people-to-people ties, cultural exchanges, academic cooperation and the digital economy?

In my mind, people-to-people exchanges are no less important than government-to-government ties and political relations. Because when you only work at the top and not at the grassroots level, at the bottom, then you end up losing the public in both countries. Around 700,000 Israelis come to Greece every year as tourists. They come here all year round, not only in the summer. They like coming to Greece, not only because it’s very close but also because it’s a very cultural country. There’s a lot of interesting things to see, history, archaeology, nature. We would very much like to see more Greek tourists going to Israel despite the fact that we have already seen a major increase. And, of course, Thessaloniki has become a very important place for Israelis to visit. Because of the history, they all come to Thessaloniki to learn about the history of the Jewish community, which was a very important community not only in Greece, but also for the whole region. Tourism is very important as a bridge between people to learn more about each other. Cultural exchanges are crucial. In the last two years we had more than 200 cultural events in Greece. And what we would like to see is more exchanges of youngsters, students and high school students between both our countries. I just met one of the general secretaries of the Ministry of Education and we were discussing what we have done over these five years. It is very impressive, including the education of the Holocaust in the schools here and sending Greek teachers to the Yad Vashem Museum for special seminars on how to teach the Holocaust in Greek high schools. We have these exchanges with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and resource center in Jerusalem. Teaching the Holocaust means understanding why racism and anti-Semitism should not be part of any society around the world. So, these are very important things that we have been working on very closely in the last couple of years. What else? Academic exchanges. This is very important as well.  I’m quite sure that with the new minister of education we will see many more exchanges between our academic institutions. We can share some of our best practices that we have introduced into our higher education system which have served as a model for many countries in the world. And then, the world of innovation – you mentioned technology, which is of great interest to us. This is the core business of Israel, let’s say. It’s the engine that drives the whole machine, and we have done quite substantial work with the Greeks and I’m happy with the results.

Have these exchanges helped improve perceptions in Greece about anti-Semitism? Also, what was your reaction to recent reports regarding the new Agriculture Minister Makis Voridis?

I think definitely it starts from the work of the administration in the last couple of years. First and foremost, the law adopted in Parliament here in 2014 that declares that anti-Semitic expressions, behavior, etc. are a criminal offense. So, there is a tool for the government to handle these cases, and we already have two cases of people being charged here in Greece for anti-Semitism. The legal framework is there, which is crucial and very important. The second very important thing is the total involvement of the administration in harshly condemning all anti-Semitic incidents. And all governments, but especially the outgoing government, were very strict on this. Whenever there were anti-Semitic incidents, there was an immediate reaction from the government, and various political parties. And this is important.  Even the Church of Greece sometimes said something. We would like to see more statements coming from the Church whenever these anti-Semitic incidents occur here in Greece. The Church is very influential and very important in Greece. And then of course, all the work we have been doing with the schools, with the young generation, to introduce to them to the whole chapter about the history of Jews in general and the Jewish community of Greece. Now, referring to the case of Mr Voridis, you probably followed his recent statements. These are very encouraging steps. Whatever he said should be read very carefully, and the very fact that he visited the Jewish Museum is also very important. I think it conveys a message to the entire society here that, today, if you want to be a politician – a mainstream politician in Greece, not on the fringes, you cannot be anti-Semitic-you cannot be racist. It shows a maturity, I think, in a way, of Greek society, of the Greek political system, and we are very satisfied that this thing happened. This chapter is now behind us.

Ben-Gurion dogma and Turkey’s role in the region

We often say that Greece and Israel are two old, stable democracies in the Eastern Mediterranean. But can these two small states do anything to stabilize an area with big neighbors such as Erdogan’s Turkey or issues like the future of Syria and Libya?

I think the main message is that despite the very fact that we are small, we are strong. You know, in today’s world, being strong is the only way you can survive. The very fact that you are strong by yourself is good, it’s important, and we know this in Israel.  Without being a strong country, we would not have been able to survive. When I speak about strength, I mean military strength, but also economic strength. But definitely if you collaborate with other strong countries, this makes the effort even more important, giving it greater value. So, the main message is that countries that have common values should collaborate. This enhances the strength of our presence in the region. It sends a very strong message, that it’s not strength of military power but it’s the strength of countries that want to collaborate to create a better environment for all of us.  And it is really working very well. Second, there’s a major topic that is being discussed in the region, which is not only military capabilities, but also energy resources. There is a very intense game playing out now in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel, Cyprus and Greece are collaborating in the energy world, and also Egypt in a way. You know, on Thursday, there was the second round of this initiative by Egypt of creating a forum for the countries of the region. This is very important. It’s not only because it creates a sort of friendship and collaboration between countries that want to intelligently and diplomatically exploit the energy resources for their own benefit, but it also sends a message that collaboration in the region brings wealth for the benefit of the people. I think this is the message that we are trying to send to countries in the region. It is the most important thing that are we cooperating on for peaceful purposes, for the benefit of our peoples – and it’s not a collaboration aimed at threatening anyone else. If other countries understand this and would like to join -of course in the future it would be very beneficial for the whole region.

Like Turkey for example?

Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, hopefully the Palestinians one day, as well. So the message is that countries should collaborate because at the end of the day collaboration brings the added value that you cannot have when you are alone. We have always been loners in our region, in the Mediterranean, in the Middle East. We were always alone, very different from other countries surrounding us. And from day one we understood we could not survive without having friends around us. So, I always refer to our first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who always said that the circle of countries that Israel should collaborate with -bearing in mind that our immediate neighbors are all hostile to us- are Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Persia at that time. These were the countries that Ben-Gurion perceived as the best friends of Israel, bearing in mind that the others are Muslims and Arabs would not cooperate with us. So we hope that one day we will reach this level and cooperate in a friendly manner with these countries.

Going back to the Ben-Gurion doctrine, relations between Israel and Turkey are not at their best point. At the same time, Turkey is obviously claiming a place for itself in the Eastern Mediterranean. Do you think that this could lead to further destabilization or at some point result in a new balance in the region?

It’s very difficult to really know where Turkey is heading. I mean, definitely Turkey today is different than Turkey 10 or 20 years ago. We are all studying – all the countries in the region – we are studying Turkey every day. I do believe that at the end of the day, we and you and all the other partners in the region understand that Turkey is an important player in the region that cannot be ignored. We will somehow have to work out a scheme to collaborate. Of course, if Turkey wants to collaborate with its partners in the region, then we will all collaborate with that country. There is no other way.  We cannot have this anomaly of relations with a very important country in the region.

If you could choose something from your five years here to keep as a precious or most valuable memory, what would it be?

If I take something from my five years here it is the magnitude of history of culture of this land and its great influence, despite the very fact that there’s this argument of whether the Greeks of today are the Hellenes of the past. I’m not getting into that.  But I think that what impressed me a lot coming from a country that also tries to cultivate our history and tradition in our children from a very young age, so we know who we are, is, is how much people here are proud of their past, culture and heritage.  This is something I am taking with me after five years. And the other thing of course, is the people, who are so wonderful and the hospitality, which has been marvelous. This is something that I will definitely not forget. It made my five years here very memorable because of this warm reception and warm relationship. Also the very fact that we feel that we lost so many years during which we did not have very good bilateral relations between Israel and Greece and we have to run, a marathon even, to bridge the gap of all those years. We are moving fast and I’m very happy to say that this is happening. I’m very happy that this was under my tenure here as ambassador, and I will of course continue looking at Greece from not so far away.

Defense cooperation

Would you say that there is room for closer cooperation in the area of defense between Greece and Israel?

I think we are doing well. There’s a very extensive program of collaboration that is growing every year.  We conduct joint exercises. We have done very well in our cooperation between our two countries’ navies, air forces and land forces. Of course, we should never be satisfied as there is always room for more. But we have reached a very good level of collaboration between our defense forces.  We always aspire for more, of course, but what we have achieved until now is very impressive.

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