New Greek PM is pro-Palestinian, but envoy to Israel predicts ‘only positive things’

Alexis Tsipras slammed Israeli ‘brutality’ in summer war, but incoming FM said last month Greece could mediate between Israel, Palestinians, Iran

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras greets supporters following victory in the election in Athens, Greece, on January 25, 2015. (AFP/Aris Messinis)
Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras greets supporters following victory in the election in Athens, Greece, on January 25, 2015. (AFP/Aris Messinis)

During last summer’s Gaza war, Alexis Tsipras, the new prime minister of Greece, said Israel’s “brutality cannot be tolerated.” Senior members of his party — which in this week’s elections nearly got an absolute majority — participated in the 2010 flotilla, which sought to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and resulted in a deadly clash between Turkish activists and Israeli troops. One of the party’s delegates to the European Parliament is said to be openly sympathetic to Hamas.

And yet, relations between Greece and Israel will remain friendly, as both sides value the “strategic importance” of increased bilateral cooperation, Greek government officials and representatives of the Jewish community said Tuesday.

On Sunday, the far-left Syriza party won the national parliamentary elections by a landslide, obtaining 149 of 300 seats. After building a coalition with the small right-wing ANEL party, Tsipras was sworn in as prime minister Monday.

Israeli officials have watched Greece’s political shift closely, since the bilateral relationship had dramatically improved in recent years, as Israel’s ties with Turkey have deteriorated.

“I can see only positive things in the future,” Greek ambassador to Israel Spyridon Lampridis said. “Criticism yes — you receive criticism from any government, so you might hear, say, comments about this or that policy of the Israeli government by the new Greek government, which might have some problems with some of [Israel’s] policies. But that will not change the overall target, which is the stability of the region, which is beneficial to both countries.”

It is true that some voices in Syriza — an acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left — are leaning toward the Palestinian narrative, Lampridis allowed. But there are several indications that Jerusalem has no need to worry, he added. For one, politicians act differently once they are in charge of running a country. “It’s a party has [entered] the government, therefore [party leaders might become] much more responsible and careful in the policies they are about to advocate.” Secondly, the diplomat said, Syriza’s junior coalition partner is “very well-known for its pro-Israeli attitudes.”

Ambassador of Greece to Israel Spyridon Lampridis sings Israel's national anthem, during a presenting credentials ceremony of new ambassadors to Israel's President Shimon Peres in his residence in Jerusalem, on May 28 2013. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)
Greek Ambassador to Israel Spyridon Lampridis sings Israel’s national anthem after he presented his credentials to then-president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, on May 28 2013. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

The continuation of strong ties is in the interest of both countries, the ambassador told The Times of Israel. “There is a reality called ‘instability in the Mediterranean’. No matter who is in the democratically elected government in Greece, [one] cannot ignore the fact that there are very few democratic prosperous states with Westerns ideals in the region. Israel is one of them. See around you, there is a very limited array of countries with which Greece can cooperate.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Tuesday refused to comment on the incoming government in Athens, pointing to a statement issued Monday, which “praised the elections in Greece and looks forward to a continuing special relationship between Greece and Israel, which has only grown in the past few years.”

The new ruling party in Athens historically has not been very fond of Israel. In its platform, Syriza explicitly called for an end to Greece’s defense cooperation with “aggressive” Israel, prominent Greek-Israeli businessman Sabby Mionis wrote in 2012, though he allowed at the time that some party leaders appeared to have adopted a more moderate approach.

“They are certainly hostile towards Israel and the relationship between the two countries will be challenging,” Mionis told The Times of Israel Tuesday. “I certainly hope that Syriza will recognize the strategic importance of this relationship and will soften its stance. Several members of Syriza, including some who are getting government positions, were even [aboard] the Flotilla in 2010.”

On the other hand, Greece’s outgoing prime minister, Antonis Samaras, who had very good ties with Jewish groups over his opposition to the far-right Golden Dawn party, invited several politicians with neo-Nazi ties into his cabinet, Mionis pointed out. “I think that bringing such characters into the political mainstream is far more dangerous” than Syriza’s left-wing criticism of Israel.

During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, Tsipras, the party head and new prime minister, said that “Palestine is in perpetual war — this war must stop at some point; this brutality cannot be tolerated… When civilians and children are killed at beaches facing the same sea that borders the European continent, we cannot remain passive, because if this happens on the other side of the Mediterranean today, it can happen on our own side tomorrow.”

But the appointment Tuesday as foreign minister of Nikos Kotzias, an international relations professor who is not a member of Syriza, indicates that the new government in Athens will not pursue a hostile policy toward Israel, several observers of Greek politics said.

Nikos Kotzias (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nikos Kotzias (photo credit: Courtesy)

Kotzias, who used to work for former center-left prime minister George Papandreou, “is a rather pragmatic politician so I do not expect a deterioration of bilateral relations” with Israel, said Emmanuel Karagiannis, a Greece-born senior lecturer at the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College London. “Kotzias has viewed Turkey as the main geopolitical competitor of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, I believe the Greek-Israeli partnership will survive this political change.”

In an article published on his blog [Greek link] last month, Kotzias wrote that Greece could mediate between the Palestinians and Israel and between Israel and Iran.

The incoming Tsipras government is a “coalition of Marxists, right-wingers and moderate leftists but I do not expect major changes in the Greek foreign policy,” Karagiannis said. The new defense minster, Panos Kammenos, for instance, is known as a pro-US and pro-Israeli right-wing politician.

According to Karagiannis, the Greek government will not rush to recognize a Palestinian state, “since most of its efforts will be directed toward managing relations with EU partners.”

A woman waves a Greek flag during a speech by Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the newly elected Syriza party outside Athens University Headquarters, Jan. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Fotis Plegas G.)
A woman waves a Greek flag during a speech by Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the newly elected Syriza party outside Athens University Headquarters, Jan. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Fotis Plegas G.)

A prominent member of the local Jewish community lauded Syriza for its principled stance against Jew hatred and said he looked forward to continued “excellent relations” with government authorities.

“During the last two years we had a very positive dialogue with the leadership of Syriza [which] always supported the fight against anti-Semitism in Greece,” Victor Eliezer, a member of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and its former secretary-general, told The Times of Israel Tuesday.

A candidate during last year’s local elections used anti-Semitic stereotypes and was swiftly thrown out by the party leadership, he said.

“Syriza always condemned anti-Semitic attitudes and leading members demonstrated their solidarity when they visited the Jewish Museum of Athens, and the Holocaust monument in Athens after its desecration.”

Eliezer said he was certain that “the excellent cooperation” the local Jewish community had with the outgoing government on religious and educational matters, such as “excellent educational programs for teaching the Holocaust,” would continue.

Acknowledging differences in opinion regarding Israeli policies, Eliezer predicted the new government will nonetheless seek to foster good ties with Jerusalem. “The new prime minister Tsipras will continue the policy of developing the bilateral relations between Greece and Israel, as these relations are considered as of strategic importance, for the benefit of both people.”

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