Greece and Israe have not yet developed their relationship to its fullest potential, Ambassador Yossi Amrani told Kathimerini in an interview in Athens last week.
On the multilateral partnerships developed between Greece, Israel and the Arab states, Amrani says that these can complement the main security provider in the region, the United States. He also noted that Israel is seeking to improve relations with Turkey, but stresses that this will not be to the detriment of relations with Greece and Cyprus.
We’ve had a few agreements, especially in the defense sector, between Greece and Israel. Do you think that’s the culmination of a process or are we just at the beginning of our cooperation in a lot of areas?
I would not see any success of recent years or time as a culmination, but as another step, another milestone in the evolution of the relationship between Greece and Israel. We are partners, we are neighbors, we see much in common and we share a clear interest in stability, peace, prosperity in the region. The recent defense procurement deals are important and significant; I do believe that they help in strengthening ties between the two countries, but to look at it as a peak or as the culmination of the relationship between the two countries would be a mistake. Why? Because we still have much to hope for, we still have room to develop the relationship further and there is definitely the potential for close cooperation in all fields. Defense cooperation and strategic cooperation have played an important role in getting us closer in the last 20 years. I do think that as important as military cooperation is, the most important development would be the development of strategic ties. This has the defense leg but also the energy leg, which is still lagging behind. We can cooperate further in connecting our two countries and our regions vis-à-vis the EastMed pipeline and electricity interconnector. Greece can be an important bridge for connecting Asia and Africa with Europe. Connecting infrastructure – this is the future of the world, the kind of global village we have in mind by connecting and getting faraway neighbors as closer partners. We are working and we should work intensively to strengthen the economic cooperation. These are some very important beginnings but it’s not moving at the right pace – and here I would like so see more Israeli investments in Greece, not just in medical cannabis and real estate, but also in high tech and agriculture. We have some ideas, we are now connecting Israeli technologies with local needs for smart cities, there is a mutual interest and I do hope we will see progress. The potential is there. I do hope with the vaccination process in Greece and in Israel we will be able to resume normal tourism; this is another important aspect of cooperation. We hope that at the next major Jewish holiday, Passover at the end of March, the health regulations in both countries will allow the resumption of tourism. So we see progress and we see the potential. I am very happy to be ambassador to this country where we see such promise.
You mentioned the pandemic, and I would like to ask if Israel and Greece have coordinated at all in this area.
We have a good exchange of information and know-how, we learn from your experience and from your challenges, and we share with you our experiences and our challenges. We are still seeing a high number of infected people in Israel, though we are in the third or fourth lockdown, depending on how you count it. Fighting the Covid-19 virus is terra incognita, it’s unknown terrain for most countries so there is the cooperation through the World Health Organization, but there is also the bilateral cooperation, exchanging known information. We are now in the midst of a massive inoculation campaign, we have vaccinated more than 2 million Israelis so far. Last week we started giving around 300,000 people the second dose. We do hope the vaccination will allow us to resume some sort of semblance of normalcy in life – of course still taking precautions, wearing a mask, intensively testing, but it would allow us to open the economy and return to a kind of “normal” life.
Talking about Israeli investments, across a number of fields, do you see any joint projects between Greek and Israeli industries coming into fruition at some point?
We see some joint projects – if asked if it’s enough or if I am satisfied by the extent of those projects, the answer is no. I am very happy to see Energean involved in gas exploration. For Israel this is a massive investment, I am very happy to see the investment of Israeli companies in ELVO [the Hellenic Vehicle Industry], and I do hope their plans will come through and ELVO indeed will be a platform of production, local consumption and export. We are trying to connect universities and researchers applying together for research grants aimed at business and ingenuity; I do hope we will see more of it. We need to push and we need to coordinate all of it. We are trying our best, but the results are not yet satisfying. If we compare it to the past, yes, it’s a tremendous change. Is this the maximum, the culmination of our efforts, as you said before, of our efforts? I would rather invest more effort and see more results.
Moving on to geopolitics, there is a tendency here on the part of Greek analysts to present the Abraham Accords between Israel and a number of countries in the region as building a nexus of relations that somehow allows Greece to be more present in the region of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Do you think there is space for cooperation between Greece, Israel and some of these countries in a broader context?
The potential is there. And I do think that is not only potential, but also regional interest aimed at stability, security, economic prosperity and cooperation. The major contribution of the Abraham Accords is opening the door and outing a relationship which existed before. The potential of relations between Israel and the Gulf countries is tremendous; it’s huge, on different levels. I do not think that this cooperation should be limited only to the bilateral dimension, it also has a multilateral dimension. Greece in recent years contributed much to stability and diplomacy in the region through the framework of trilateral cooperation. You are rich with trilaterals with many countries in the region. I do hope that some time we will really develop the vision to bring all those trilaterals together under the same roof and allow us, like we have with the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, to create regional forums of cooperation for issues which are of mutual interest to all countries. In that regard, Greece has a very important role, not only as a matchmaker, but also as the engine and the inspiration for further cooperation. Gas or energy is one sector, the environment is another sector, natural hazards, fires, earthquakes, can be another dimension, as well as public health: We should see how we help each other in protecting our own population vis-à-vis future epidemics. I am touching on aspects which are all considered to be soft power – should they be limited only to those soft-core civilian aspects? I do hope that we start with the soft power and eventually create a certain platform of cooperation, a framework of cooperation of different countries in the region allowing a dialogue or a “multi-dialogue” of nations. This is something which is for the future, but it’s not out of reach; it’s something that we can achieve through leadership of countries – Greece among them.
Do you think there are ways of projecting that image of multilateral cooperation in some symbolic projects in the near future?
Things are in the making. And once you see a certain result, it comes after much effort. I may say that people in Greece, people in Israel, people in other countries, people of influence and I would say decision makers are not strangers to the idea. There is an ongoing discussion, there is an ongoing exchange between different countries on how to strengthen cooperation. In some aspects, you see that and you read about it in the papers, but I won’t go into too many details at the moment. The potential is there, the effort is there, and I hope that in the near future we will see results for this regional engagement, bridging different countries together. There is no monogamy in bilateral relations. We can share and we can bring others on board, and I hope that soon we will see certain results.
We recently read in the papers about a Turkish campaign to somehow reboot its relationship with Israel, and while of course this is something that countries do, some believe that it may be to the detriment of the Greek-Israeli-Cypriot relationship. How would you respond to those who think that?
I would have to repeat myself and reiterate that the Israeli-Greek relationship, and in that regard the Israeli-Hellenic relationship with Greece and Cyprus, is one of the most important achievements of Israeli foreign policy in the last decade and beyond. And I am saying that because we need to understand, realize and accept that relations between Israel and Greece (I am not the one to speak about Cyprus, but it’s the same) stand on their own. It is a sine qua non and it’s not a zero-sum game. Improving the relationship, having normal dialogue with all countries is a legitimate foreign policy. Having improved relations between Israel and Turkey would not come at the expense of Greece, or Cyprus, or our cooperation, bilateral, multilateral and, hopefully, in more expanded platforms. Greece is about to start the 61st round of exploratory talks [with Turkey] – let’s put it this way: At the moment we are not even close or at the same position of having exploratory talks with Turkey. But improving this relationship is definitely a goal of Israel in foreign policy. We would like to have a normal, constructive, stable relationship with Turkey. Turkey is an important country in the region and a country with a long history in the region – so are you as Greeks and so are we as Israelis. Having improved relationships is definitely a goal.
As we witness a change in the White House, do you see that somehow changing the long-term US strategy in our region, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East?
Biden… is a welcome president with experience, in Washington, in the US, in the world. President Biden carries experience in the Senate and the White House as VP for eight years; he is no stranger to the world. I would imagine that there will be a certain continuity in the principles of American foreign policy. I don’t think that the major challenges will change; the style and the approach may be a little different – there will be new cooperations and new partnerships developed with Europe and others; the role of the US in the region will remain significant and crucial for stability. We do hope that the US administration will maintain its high-level involvement in serving as a bridge between Israel and its neighbors. It’s clear that the Trump administration played a pivotal role in initiating and realizing the Abraham Accords, but in the end American priorities will in a way be the domestic agenda – the economy, fighting the coronavirus – and maintaining the US role as the leading superpower in the world. Those challenges are not easy. I’m not judging, just saying that we have to be very patient and very moderate with our expectations.
The US was always the major, let’s say, security provider in the region. Do you believe the enhanced cooperation between Greece, Israel, Arab countries, and other possible factors in the region, could somehow substitute the US role of security provider in the region, since America is not going to dramatically increase its footprint in the region – at least not more than what we see right now?
I would change one word in your question, and this will be my answer. Instead of substitute, I would use supplement. I think that our joint efforts within the bilateral relationship, the trilateral with Cyprus and the expansion of the trilaterals to other platforms of cooperation with other countries in the region could supplement American efforts to maintain peace, stability and security in the Mediterranean. You see different military drills involving different countries. This is a positive development. In a way, the challenge for many countries – without elaborating – vis-à-vis the new administration in Washington, is to reinvent themselves as partners, allies and strategic donors, if I may say so, to an American view of the world. Instead of us relying, expecting and asking, we could play a role supplementing American investments and policy in the region and becoming more relevant than we usually are.
You have been here long enough to witness some changes in terms of the behavior of the Greek state, punishing anti-Semitism and crimes connected to it. Do you think this is enough or would you say we need to see more engagement between Greece and Israel so Greeks become more aware of these issues, because some people don’t notice or understand?
We have seen certain anti-Semitic accidents in recent months, if I may say so, if I may call them accidents. The desecration of synagogues, the desecration of cemeteries. This calls for an effort to educate people and to uproot that ignorance and prejudice. I have been here for more than a year. I would never say that a year is enough and I don’t think there is enough time to learn a country as rich, diversified, with history, like Greece. After a year-plus in Greece, I may tell you that every time I witness such an expression of anti-Semitism in the country, it is a major disappointment. I will never judge, never have the cultural and historical knowledge of any country to make such an opinion or judgment, but it seems to me very strange to Greek philosophy, Greek legacy and heritage. So it is in Greece’s interest – I think this is the way your government and your Ministry of Education see it – it is a Greek mission to develop a better understanding of the meaning of certain expressions of anti-Semitism. As Greece is an open country, a welcoming nation to so many immigrants absorbed around the country, and the relative tolerance compared to any other country in Europe toward immigrants, I feel that people here are missing a very important understanding of the role Jews, Jewish religion and culture, civilization played in the history of Greece in the last 2,000 years. It’s a rich experience of engagement, involvement and coexistence. And people need to understand this beyond what they know now and of course the efforts of so many Greek people to rescue Jews during the Holocaust during World War II. This is the last lesson that should be taught. And I think that this is the only way to uproot certain sentiments and emotions or feelings based or rooted in ignorance and prejudice and hate.