SOCIETY

Strengthening Greek-Israeli ties

The executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee (AJC) suggests in an interview with Kathimerini a strategic dimension to the cooperation between Greece and Israel, a few days ahead of an official visit to Athens by Israeli President Shimon Peres on August 6-8. David Harris describes the relations between the two countries as excellent, notes that the Eastern Mediterranean is an area of vital importance to the US, and talks about the attraction of a four-party cooperation between the US, Greece, Israel and Cyprus in gas exploration in the area.

As to the steps taken by the Jewish-American community to stand by Greece in these difficult times, Harris says it encourages more tourism and investments, while at the same time urging governments and multilateral institutions to do all they can to help create the conditions for a turnaround.

How would you describe the present relationship between Greece and Israel?

Excellent and continuing to get better. Both countries have much to gain from their deepening ties.

In a few days, President Shimon Peres will be making his first visit to Athens as head of the State of Israel.

He will be coming at an important moment in the development of bilateral ties between Athens and Jerusalem. His visit in a very real sense confirms the positive direction. Knowing him, I have no doubt the visit will be a success and stir enthusiasm both among Greeks and Israelis alike.

Do you see a strategic partnership between Greece and Israel, and what could this mean for the region?

Both countries? leaders use the term ?strategic partnership? today to describe the link. To think about it, this should not come as a surprise. After all, both countries are robust democracies. Both countries also share common concerns in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Arab upheaval has called into question vital issues of stability and security. Both countries see energy issues emerging as an important dimension of the relationship. And both countries have much in common on a human level, as I have noticed during many visits.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras from New Democracy, as well former Premier George Papandreou of PASOK have made clear they want closer ties with Israel. This shows that it is a cross-party strategic decision. Are you convinced of Athens?s commitment?

Yes, the leaders are serious and sincere. Events on the ground prove the point very tangibly.

Can the one country rely on the other?

No, neither country may be in a position to ?save the other? meaning Israel alone cannot save Greece from its economic challenges, and, in turn, Greece cannot save Israel from the threat of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas but, short of that, the highest national interests of Greece and Israel are served by strengthening relations.

Speaking from an American perspective, what is your view of a four-party cooperation (US, Greece, Israel and Cyprus) and what could it mean for the area?

With a cloud over Egypt, turbulence in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah seeking to dominate Lebanon, the logic of four-party cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the US is ever more compelling. As an American, I would add that this area is of vital interest to the US. And with major gas discoveries in the territorial waters of Israel and Cyprus, and perhaps one day in Greece, its significance to the region and the world will only grow still further.

What was the purpose of your recent meetings in Athens?

This was AJC?s second visit to Athens in 2012 alone, and fourth in the past two years. We have long been friends of Greece. For example, I?ve been coming for well over 20 years, at times together with our Greek-American friends, including distinguished individuals like [former Maryland] Senator Paul Sarbanes and [former president of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad] Andrew Athens. We believe that when a friend is in difficulty, such visits become still more vital. We want to learn as much as we can about the situation and share it, demonstrate our solidarity and see if there are concrete ways in which we can be of help. We received a wonderful reception from the new government, and had very friendly and intensive talks on a range of key issues.

Given the influence of the Jewish-American community, many Greeks might ask what can it do, or what is it doing, to ameliorate the dire economic situation they face?

The dire economic situation faced by Greece is not something that any one group, much less outsiders like ourselves, can magically repair, however much we might wish to. What we can do and have been doing is remind the world of our friendship with Greece, encourage more visitors to come to this beautiful and alluring country, consult with our Greek friends in the diaspora, invite businessmen to seek new opportunities, and urge governments and multilateral institutions to do all they can to help create the conditions for a turnaround.