Greek News Agency Interviews David Harris

Greek news agency interviews David Harris

Athens Macedonian News Agency (AMNA)

January 22, 2013

AJC Executive Director David Harris was interviewed by AMNA, a leading Greek news agency, on the eve of this week’s AJC delegation visit to Greece. English translation is below:

AMNA: What is the purpose of your visit to Greece?

DH: AJC has been traveling to Greece for decades, where we have many friends in government, civil society, the church and, of course, the Jewish community. More recently, since the advent of this dramatic economic crisis, we have been coming still more frequently. We want to show by our presence our ongoing concern and solidarity. We also want to be in a better position on our return from each visit, through AJC’s offices in New York, Washington, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, to help encourage greater understanding and support for Greece.

AMNA: What is the level of Greek – Israeli relations today?

DH: In recent years, Greek-Israeli bilateral relations have improved dramatically. In a very real sense, this should come as little surprise. After all, both countries share many things in common. They are ancient civilizations, each of which has contributed profoundly to human development, as the legendary Winston Churchill, a friend to both Greeks and Jews, famously noted. They are both robust democracies. They share an interest in the relationship between “homeland” and “diaspora.” They are both surrounded by the dramatic events in the eastern Mediterranean, which underscore common political and strategic interests. And the opportunities for still closer cooperation in such areas as energy, tourism, education, culture, and research and development are significant.

AMNA: With what activities is the cooperation of Greek and Jewish organizations in the United States being realized?

DH: For one thing, it is not by accident that our AJC group in Greece is joined by two noted Greek-American leaders. In fact, this has frequently been the format for our visits to Greece. AJC and the Greek-American organizations have long cooperated, both in the United States and with regard to Greece and Israel. And we have joined together this time to make a humanitarian contribution to Doctors Without Borders – Greece, as a tangible gesture of our desire to help Greek society grapple with the issues it confronts, including available medical care for all in need. And this week, in Boston, AJC and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis are hosting a major program to celebrate our friendship in the United States and our respective links to Israel and Greece.

AMNA: Is Greece's approach towards Israel really long-term or is it a consequence of the coolness in Israeli – Turkish relations?

DH: The deepening links between Greece and Israel are driven, above all, by the highest national interests of each country, and not by any third-country factor. Until 1990, Greece had quite frosty relations with Israel, which was most regrettable, but all that has changed in the past two decades – and to the obvious benefit of both countries.

AMNA: From the Greek side, there is the impression in certain circles that Greece is choosing Israel as opposed to the Arab World with which it has traditional friendly relations. Do you agree?

DH: My impression is that Greece seeks friendly relations with both Israel and Arab countries. This is entirely understandable and can contribute to the region’s development. Given Greece’s location, historical interests, and economic concerns, why should it not seek warm ties with a range of countries, even as there is always a special quality to the links forged between truly democratic nations? But what no democratic country should do – but too often was the case in the past – is to fall into the trap of believing that to have strong relations with the Arab world, there must be little to no contact with Israel. Experience has long shown that such a zero-sum equation is wrong-headed and counter-productive.

AMNA: Do you believe that energy cooperation between Cyprus – Israel – Greece has a future?

DH: Absolutely. I am optimistic about the prospects for trilateral energy cooperation among Cyprus, Greece and Israel. Indeed, I believe it to be a regional game-changer, having major strategic and economic implications for all three countries – and beyond.

AMNA: The economic crisis in the Eurozone has been accompanied by the rise of extreme right-wing parties in several European countries, including Greece with the Golden Dawn.Are you concerned about this development?

DH: Most certainly. The troubling rise of extreme right-wing parties in such countries as Greece and Hungary threatens the social fabric of democracies. No one should be under any illusion. The attempted targeting or scapegoating of minority communities, by virtue of their religion, skin color or country of origin, for the larger ills of society is at its core an assault on democratic society itself. Such parties offer the temptation to believe they have all the answers, whether to high unemployment, shrinking paychecks, crime or migration. In reality, they do not. Simplistic answers may seem alluring to some, but they do not offer a serious and successful way out of the current challenges, far from it. Surely, history can serve as an illuminating and sobering guide here.

AMNA: What role does Israel want to play in the region in an environment of tension on the one hand, and of a democratic "awakening" of Arab nations in the framework of the so called Arab Spring on the other?

DH: Israel can change many things for the better – agriculture, medical technology, water management, communications systems – but it cannot change its basic geography. The Arab world is experiencing seismic upheaval that will likely go on for years, if not much longer. During this extended – and uncertain – period, Israel will have to be especially alert, both to the opportunities that might emerge and, yes, to the dangers, which are very real.

AMNA: What is your evaluation of the political situation in Egypt?

DH: The jury is still out on where the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists will lead the country. Because of Egypt’s size and prominence, its future direction is immensely significant. Watching how the current political leadership deals with such issues as the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the Coptic Christian minority, freedom of the press, and women’s rights will be revealing barometers of where the country is headed. One unfortunate sign came with the revelation of President Morsi’s virulently anti-Semitic comments three years ago, while he was still a Muslim Brotherhood leader. We can only hope that, as president, he will distance himself from those repulsive sentiments.

AMNA: The new leadership of the Department of Defense in the U.S. was not received with enthusiasm in Israel, given the positions the new appointee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has expressed about Iran.How do you see this difficult situation with Iran developing?

DH: Iran is the number-one foreign policy challenge for the West, and not just the United States or Israel. The notion of this Iranian regime, with its messianic worldview, its regional aspirations, and its global support for terrorism, having access to a nuclear weapon is terrifying. Among other things, it might well trigger a dangerous new nuclear arms race practically at Greece’s doorstep. It is the stated policy of the United States and the European Union to prevent Iran from reaching that point. This will test our collective will and resolve. We all hope for a peaceful outcome, but, if there is any such chance, it must be accompanied by a determination to keep upping the economic price for Iran’s defiance of the international community, greater political isolation, and a credible military option to convince the Iranians that we are truly serious.

AMNA: Since the period of U.S. elections, we have seen President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu trading barbs, especially with regard to Israel's handling of the peace process.Do you believe their relations are experiencing a crisis?

DH: No, I do not believe there is a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. To the contrary, bilateral ties are as strong and robust as they have ever been, especially in such as areas as strategic cooperation, intelligence sharing, homeland security, economic links and political consultation. Are there areas of difference? Yes, but, viewed from a historical context, every U.S. administration and every Israeli government have on occasion had divergences, sometimes big, sometimes small. No two countries, no matter how friendly, have identical interests. But the foundation of the relationship is rock-solid. There is no more pro-Israel country in the world than America, and there is no more pro-America country in the world than Israel. As one top American official told me in Washington the other day, “If there were no Israel, we’d have to create it. America has no better and more reliable friend in the region.”

AMNA: Many analysts believe that a courageous move by Israel is necessary to provide a push to the Palestinian problem, which is considered the focal point of tension in the Middle East. Your view, please.

DH: By now, it should be abundantly clear that the Palestinian problem is not “the focal point of tension in the Middle East.” What is happening in Syria, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere, in the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, and in the struggle for true democracy, the rule of law, minority rights and women’s equality, all have nothing to do with the Palestinian issue. That said, of course, an enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on a two-state agreement, remains an essential goal. Four consecutive Israeli prime ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, have all called for just such an accord, but to no avail. The Israeli public, in poll after poll, supports a two-state deal, even as it does not see a comparable willingness on the other side. It is high time for friends of the peace process to open their eyes and understand that pressuring Israel while coddling the Palestinians, and overlooking all the obstacles they have created, is not a formula for progress. If the Palestinians are to have a state of their own alongside Israel (and Jordan), then it is high time to expect of them political maturity and accountability, including a willingness to meet Israel half-way.

AMNA: How do you see the situation developing in Syria given the disagreement between large powers to jointly act in the UN Security Council, which gives the Assad regime time while bloodshed is continuing in the country?

DH: What can I say about President Assad’s Syria that has not already been said?More than 60,000 fatalities, countless more driven from their homes, brutality on a scale rarely seen even for a world that has witnessed its share of tragedy, and an opposition that now contains increasingly strong jihadist elements. Meanwhile, thanks to Russia and China, the UN Security Council has been deadlocked, relegated to issuing little more than meaningless statements. Of great concern is Syria’s vast arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, and what will happen to it in all the tumult. Let’s also remember who is helping the Assad regime – most immediately, Iran and Hezbollah. Yes, this is the very same Hezbollah that the European Union has inexplicably failed to add to its terrorism list so far. Finally, it is important to recall that Syria shares a border with Israel, which is yet another reminder of the very real security challenges – and the current make-up of some of its neighbors – that Israel faces in its turbulent neighborhood.
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