ATHENS — Greece and Israel are the Mediterranean anchors for stability, cooperation, security, and prosperity, Ambassador of Israel, Yossi Amrani, said in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) released on Thursday.
"The relations are mutually beneficial for both countries. The relationship provides us with a strategic horizon. It provides us with an economic horizon with a regional horizon," he underlined.
The Ambassador also said that after 73 years with new generations born into a sovereign independent state of Israel, the most important thing is the miracle of freedom and sovereignty.
The full interview follows:
Israel is celebrating 73 years since its independence this year. What does this signal for the future of your country?
After 73 years with new generations born into a sovereign independent state of Israel, I think the most important thing is the miracle of freedom and sovereignty. Israel, the Jewish people have not experienced many years of sovereignty and independence. After almost 2000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple we are building a nation. A nation born on the land of Israel. A nation which is part of the international community. A nation of ingenuity, creativity and a strong connection with our Jewish heritage-that’s where we come from. At the same time, we are part of the regional landscape. We are a nation in the Middle East.
In the last year the Abraham Accords proved that Israel is becoming part of the region. I think this is a very important development. Coming back from Israel on Sunday after not being home for a long time because of coronavirus, I must tell you that one of the striking experiences that I have in my life as a diplomat is that every time I go to Israel I find a new country. Anytime I go I find how we are reinventing ourselves. I landed on Sunday night and went to Jerusalem and one must be impressed with the highway systems, with the tunnels with the bridges with the changing landscape of the country maintaining the old while at the same time moving with the times really being a very modern country. Just remember that in 1948 when the country was established getting to Jerusalem was almost impossible. Now there are modern trains, modern highways. Then you get to Tel Aviv which is a true 24 hours a day modern city. It never stops, it never comes to a standstill. You see how the city is changing the landscape – the economic boom which Israel is experiencing. You move to the North and you see new ports, the port of Haifa for example. The importance of the day is about reflecting. Reflecting about what happened 73 years ago. What has happened since. We can be proud of our achievements. This is something which we Israelis need to bear in mind and remember. We have done it. We have made it. Israel is a success story. This does not mean that there is not much more to do. But at the same time you look around and you see a nation. A nation was born in 1948 even before but is being solidified as a nation with all the differences. With all the differences between people and political points of view with conflicts and arguments, we are very political nation. We had four elections in two years. But nevertheless, this country never stops. And this is the achievement.
The messages of the political leadership in Israel for the 200th anniversary since the Greek Revolution were very warm. During the last few years, Greece and Israel have forged strong strategic cooperation. What is its importance for Israel? How is it developing in security issues, what is its prospect and what sectors is Israel placing emphasis on?
Greece is celebrating 200 years of its sovereignty since the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Israel is celebrating 73 years. We may be a bit younger as states, but we are old ancient nations with a very important contribution to civilization to the world for thousands of years and especially these days. We are part of the democratic experience. We are part of the Mediterranean experience. In a way, Greece and Israel are the cradle of civilization and humanity. For me it is only natural that these two pillars of Western civilization, these two pillars of humanity would be close allies and friends. My commitment, my vow, my goal as Ambassador of Israel to Greece in the last year and a half is to promote the relationship and build it further. A Strong, close, productive, beneficial relationship for both countries and peoples. One should not forget that we are Mediterranean countries. And the relevance, the importance of the relationship is that we are Mediterranean anchors for stability, cooperation, security, and prosperity. Whatever is happening between Israel and Greece this is not the end of it. More can be achieved. I would not rest on any laurels of any successes so far because there is much more to be done on all fronts, the economic, the strategic, the political, the people to people. The very fact, and people do not know is that Greek music influenced the birth of Israeli music. The birth of current Israeli music. This is something which started in clubs in the 1960’s in Ramla and Lod. The kind of music we love as Israelis was born in the 1960’s and 1970’s influenced by Greek singers. You listen to Israeli music. You listen to Naomi Shemer, an iconic Israeli songwriter and you hear Theodorakis and you hear Hatzidakis. The words and the music. So we are neighbors, we are friends. We have much to benefit from one another and our friendship and I will say it on this festive day that the future is one of cooperation and partnership. It is not aimed at anyone. It is aimed at stability, peace and prosperity.
Can we describe the relations between Greece and Israel? Do you believe this is a strategic relationship for Israel?
Of course. The relations are mutually beneficial for both countries. The relationship provides us with a strategic horizon. It provides us with an economic horizon with a regional horizon. The East Med Pipeline and the EuroAsia Interconnector are two examples of such cooperation. Of course, there is very close people to people cooperation. Israel is the first country whose vaccinated citizens can visit Greece without any exceptional restrictions beyond the restrictions which apply to everyone else. We have close people to people relations. We have cultural exchanges. I think that this is very clear proof of how close the relations are and can be.
What about the security and defense cooperation?
The relationship has a very strong pillar of strategic, security cooperation. Our armies coordinate tactics and exchange know- how and there are certain international drills in which Israel, Greece and others take part. We have seen progress with defense procurements. Israel for its security for its defense has developed a very strong and vibrant defense industry. We are cooperating with Greece. We are willing to cooperate more. We respect the process in Greece and your own priorities and your own considerations. We have seen some major developments in recent years. I hope more will be achieved soon. But it depends on Greek Government decisions. You will find us as willing allies, willing partners, sharing information, sharing know-how, sharing technologies. We are at your disposal.
In a trilateral framework, Greece, Israel and Cyprus have developed cooperation on all levels. What is the importance of this trilateral cooperation in terms of stability, cooperation and peace in the East Mediterranean? What are the major challenges they are facing?
On Friday we will have another meeting of the trilateral+1. This time it is the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel and Cyprus meeting in Cyprus for a routine meeting this time with a representative of the United Arab Emirates. This is a sign of close cooperation. This is a direction where we can take the relationship. And this is another indication of things which were unheard of before. Now they are natural. Greece is a player in the region.
The agenda of the upcoming trilateral+1 is the exchanges. The agenda is meeting. The agenda is keeping the routine of regular meetings, discussing regional developments, sharing each other’s concerns and discussing the economic agenda. And the economic agenda is the East Med and other projects.
I think that the most challenging aspect is overcoming our own bureaucracies, overcoming our own inhibitions and moving ahead beyond politics and political sensitivities.
With the aim of becoming a bridge between the East Mediterranean and the Gulf with the Balkans and the rest of Europe, Athens hosted the Philia Forum. How did Israel view the holding of the forum while it is normalizing its relations with Arab countries? Is a new momentum being created in the region in terms of promoting stability in the wider area?
Greece’s history is one of bringing East and West together. And I do believe that with your foreign policy initiatives the Philia Forum for example you can play a very active role in building a region of cooperation and friendship.
A few months ago we had the Philia Forum here. This is an important development. Israel was not invited to this forum. We hope that we will be invited to future forums. This has been discussed already and will be discussed further. Israel is a legitimate, integral part of the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern region, economically, strategically a very effective and strong partner. We can do more. We can transform the bilateral strategic relationship into an axis of cooperation between Europe-the Middle East- theGulf. I think that the Abraham Accords give us a much wider dimension of relationship. Connecting our infrastructure, connecting our ports. This can be a beneficial advantage, a boom for the Greek economy but also for Israel.
We are part of the region. For us it seems very natural that if there is a regional gathering we will be invited as equal partners. We hope that in the next round the next Philia Forum that will take place in another country not in Greece we will be invited. This is the indication we have and I hope that it will be achieved. This is a very high priority for us. To take part equally with others in any regional gathering.
Is there a process in development for a rapprochement in Israel’s relations with Turkey? What are the terms Israel is setting? Will it affect Greek-Israeli relations and wider regional cooperation?
Relations with Turkey are of importance to every country in this region. Turkey is a strong historic, economic presence in the region. We have full respect for Turkey. We enjoyed very close cooperation with Turkey in the past. It was a Turkish government decision to change the parameters of the relationship. If the Turks are interested in improving the relationship with Israel we are willing to do that. We have our own terms of reference. We have our own concerns and they are clear and known to the Turks. We hope this campaign to improve relations with neighboring countries including with Greece will be successful. This will be a major contribution to the stability, prosperity, and peace in the region.
Turkey has played a role with certain players in Israel’s immediate vicinity. With the Islamic Brotherhood with Hamas. They know our concerns and I think that there is no reason or need for me to elaborate on those concerns in public. They know where we stand. They know our sensitivities. If they expect their sensitivities to be respected the same should apply to others as well.”
Will it affect Greek-Israeli relations? In no way. The Israel-Greece relationship stands on its own. The relations are very strong. Nothing of the sort can affect the bilateral relationship or the bilateral, multilateral aspect of the relations. Once again I would emphasize that the future of Israel-Greece relations is independent of your relationship with Turkey or our relationship with Turkey. We believe in the value of the relationship. The only limits are the limits we place on ourselves. The sky is the limit. And having a good relationship with Turkey and a strong cooperation between Israel and Greece and Israel, Greece and Cyprus and others is a win win for everyone.
At what stage is the East Med pipeline project and what is its importance for Greece, Israel but also for the Eastern Mediterranean?
There are different ideas being discussed and I think in recent months with certain initiatives coming from different potential partners we understand that the time is now to move and make decisions. The energy market, the gas market, EU energy policies will create different conditions within a few years. If we want our economies to prosper and to build certain strategic values now is the time to act. There are different ideas being discussed. It has been in the media. I don’t think I would like to elaborate on the different routes and the possibilities, but I would emphasize time is of importance. It’s time to make a decision and to move. There are certain discussions. There were certain meetings between the energy ministers of Israel-Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus and others. There was a conference call between the energy ministers of Southeast Europe and Greece, Israel and Cyprus. We are making progress but we need to do much more and much faster.
Look. We have the reserves. We have the gas. If we don’t use it now, if we don’t exhaust the natural resources available at our disposal in a few years economically, financially, environmentally it will not be possible. This is the time to take advantage and move fast. Through regional cooperation. There have been discussions. The Greeks were involved, the Cypriots were involved, us and the Egyptians. There are different options to make this dream this vision of the East Med from fantasy by some into a reality. I’m a believer in this project. But being a believer in this project we need to make things happen and we need to take action. We need to move. There are different routes, different possibilities, let’s go for what is economically, politically feasible. The benefit is first of all taking advantage of the resources. Second the income to the countries third the strategic added value for Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.
Do studies say the project is feasible?
“There are different routes for the East Med. The question is political and economical and financing the project. Different alternative routes make it possible. The Israeli Minister of Energy is a believer so is the Prime Minister. I would quote what Energy Minister Steinitz said in a recent interview. There is enough gas for more than one pipeline.”
In 2019 Greece received about 715,000 Israeli visitors, making it the 9th country in terms of arrivals. Given the bilateral agreement allowing Israelis who have been vaccinated to travel to Greece, as well as those that have a negative Covid-19 test, what are the indications and your assessment about the arrivals of Israeli tourists in Greece this year?
I think that after a year of almost no tourism of very limited tourism from Israel to Greece we will see a major surge and return to the numbers of 2019 hopefully beyond that. I came back from Israel on Sunday night with an EL AL flight. The plane was full. The very fact that the Greek Government through the efforts of Minister Theoharis and others lifted the requirement for self-isolation created the possibility for Israelis to travel. We need to facilitate more. Once restaurants and bars and music halls open in Greece and on the islands I think we will see a real massive movement of people. Greece is beloved by the Israelis. Greece is very close to Israel. Israelis love to spend time in Greece. Many Israelis have real estate properties, houses here. They are just waiting for the opportunity to come and let’s not forget its Spring and Summer is around the corner. It’s time for people to start vacationing. We miss this opportunity for all of us. Travelling and experiencing. Reading the Israeli press, every day there is a story about Greece and what it has to offer from Zagorohoria to Meteora to the islands, to the Peloponnese. It’s just amazing. If you read Israeli papers you think you are reading a bulletin of the Greek Ministry of Tourism.
What is the situation regarding vaccinations in Israel?
This is one of the most striking experiences I had. Life returned to normal too fast in my own personal opinion. I was in Jerusalem and in Haifa, my hometown . People are wearing masks but they are outside. In the parks there are pedestrians All restaurants and all coffee bars are open. Shopping malls are open. I was walking on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, one of the nicest streets I’ve ever seen and it's crowded with people. People are wearing masks. People are keeping a certain social distance but you see people and they are all outside. They are all sipping coffee or having their dinners or lunches. On the corner of pedestrian walks on Yehuda Street you see musicians singing. It’s beautiful. They are playing jazz, Mediterranean music, Jewish music, everything. So the city is crowded. It was the same in Haifa. I think that after a very difficult year of social isolation and social distance with natural anxiety of coronavirus, now with the vaccination it gives us a certain immunity but also relaxes all the anxieties and fears and people are coming back to life.