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Eastward enlargement of the European Union, resolution of the Cyprus problem, and advances toward peace in the Middle East - the three major issues that president of the EU Council of Ministers, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, has placed atop his presidency's agenda. Four and a half months into his six-month rotation as president of the council, Papandreou does not seem to have much reason to smile: Since the beginning of his tenure in office, the Iraq crisis has cast a dark shadow over the enlargement issue, an open rift has erupted between what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls "the old Europe" (primarily France and Germany) and "the new Europe" (mainly the countries of Eastern Europe that will be joining the EU, beginning next year); and although the border between the two parts of Cyprus was opened to limited passage by residents of the island, leaders of the rival sides show little interest in renewing the peace talks.

Learning from the past

As for the Middle East, all it takes is the personal experience of Papandreou - who has been on the receiving end of every possible Israeli excuse, and has been forced time and again to postpone his visit to the region - to conclude that Jerusalem has already begun to enthusiastically adopt the new arrangement being pushed by the Bush-Rumsfeld team: all eyes are on the countries of Eastern Europe, with whom - in the opinion of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry - Israel's closer relations may lead to a shift in the balance of forces within the EU, in Israel's favor. In the meantime, "Old Europe" is being asked to wait in line.

Papandreou, who arrived in Israel on Tuesday, rejects the analysis. Interviewed by Haaretz, he admits, "We cannot have full control over issues like Iraq and the Middle East." Nevertheless, he asserts that "it is illusionary to think that the old members and the new candidates are divided. We are all one family, which is part of an old Europe that together created a new Europe. It is not at all important on which side we were during World War II or during the Cold War - all of us are trying to learn from the past and build a new community of shared values."

The enlarging Europe represents the world's biggest "peace and democracy project," says Papandreou. "It is easy to point out the difficulties of the project, but anyone who studies it in the proper perspective will find that we have made some significant successes. The addition of 10 new countries, most of which were ruled by totalitarian regimes, is one of them; Cyprus, whose residents are already looking forward to a common future of peace under the European umbrella, will eventually turn into the same kind of success story, too."

Papandreou adds that even in the Middle East, it is possible to pinpoint European successes: "The road map and the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister - these are, after all, ideas that we supported from the very start."

At a time when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not hesitate to express himself in a manner that marks Powell's visit a failure, can anyone sincerely speak of successes in the region?

Optimism and realism is the combination Papandreou seeks in the region. Optimism, because "it is too early to judge the visit or the willingness to implement the road map." But realism as well, since "more than a few initiatives have failed here in the past, some at the last minute." This realism is explained by a clarification that nevertheless seems to cloak a deep-seated skepticism. "You may find yourself facing an enlisted Europe that suffices with maintenance of the relations as they now are; or you can be exposed to an enthusiastic Europe that comes together as one, and creates an energetic life in the region. All of this depends, of course, on the progress of the peace process."

A clear warning

In what seems a reference to the question of the right of return, Papandreou immediately adds this clear warning: "The posing of preconditions to the implementation of the road map will not be able to help advance the process - and in the end [should the road map fail - A.P.], Europe, like the United States and the international community, will draw its conclusions, and there will no doubt be repercussions. This is not a threat, but a reality."

In light of the rift that has developed between Europe and the United States in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, Papandreou wishes to emphasize that "in the matter of the Middle East, there is no disagreement between us." Nevertheless, the rotating president of the EU, who has met with leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority since his arrival here - made sure to pay a personal visit to Yasser Arafat.

Don't you concur with the American contention that these sort of visits adversely affect the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and thereby the chances of the peace process?

"We understand the argument, but we are also exposed to other assessments of the situation, which argue that Arafat's isolation will in fact hurt the chances for peace. This sort of isolation will make him hostile, and will help to foster a `puppet prime minister' image of Abu Mazen. We therefore have to navigate between two very different perspectives, and we must be especially attentive to the views of the Palestinians on this issue."

Papandreou, son of the populist Greek prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, who died in 1996, and the grandson of another George Papandreou, who was prime minister of Greece after World War II, is plainly the most respected politician in Greece today.

"Yurgaki," as Papandreou is called in Greece, was born in the United States and raised in Canada and Sweden, where his family moved after being forced out of Greece in the 1960s by the regime of the colonels. Although he lacks the rhetorical zeal and the passion for intrigue that characterized both his father and grandfather, many think of him as a future prime minister.

In a conversation on Monday with members of the EU-Israel Forum, Papandreou said he recently learned that a group of Greek Jews, that helped Jewish refugees escape Greece and reach the Middle East during World War II, also aided his grandfather escape from Greece to Alexandria. "When he returned to Greece after the war, my grandfather, who became prime minister, saw to it that the law ensured the restoration of all Jewish property that had been seized by the Nazis. Greece was a pioneer in this area."

On the same day of the conversation, a report was issued by the EUMC, the EU's supervisory body on racism and xenophobia. The report reflected heightened concern about the increase in anti-Semitic acts on the continent. "These actions should be seen as a subversion of our democracy," says Papandreou. "The union - which has harsh experience of absolutist ideologies and ethnic cleansing - will not permit racism and anti-Semitism to strike root in the continent."

For several years, Papandreou has persistently sought to redirect Greece from the policies pursued by his father - policies that were opposed to the U.S. and to integration in the EU; a pro-Arab policy that was oriented to the Third World - to a policy that considers integration in the Western world a strategic asset. The Iraq war proved that the Greece of Papandreou and Prime Minister Costas Simitis underwent accelerated Europeanization, as reflected in its absolute identification with the opponents of the "American war." Even given the results of the war, Papandreou does not think Greece made a mistake in siding with the Paris-Berlin axis. "No one in Europe truly doubted the Americans' ability to win this war," he says. "Nor did the countries of the EU claim they would refuse to use force in every instance. The dispute was over the timing, the decision-making process, the role of the UN in the conflict, and of course, the issue of the rebuilding of Iraq, which is still open."

The distance that the younger Papandreou has taken from his father's policies is also reflected in their divergent views on the Middle East and the son's decision to carry out a more balanced policy toward Israel. The liberal foreign minister of Greece also invests great efforts in improving relations with Turkey. "A European Turkey," meaning a Turkey that can undergo deep internal metamorphosis, is a strong Greek interest, Papandreou believes.

Is the election of the Islamic Erdogan as prime minister of Turkey a worrisome development? Is there a risk of Turkey undergoing a process of fundamentalization?

"If Europe has `Christian-Democrats,' why shouldn't it have `Muslim-Democrats' [as Erdogan seeks to describe his party - A.P.]?" replies Papandreou. Nevertheless, he immediately adds, "On the other hand, we definitely have to be aware that a flare-up of the Kurdish problem, a severe economic crisis and a delay in implementation of reforms in Turkey are liable to lead to fundamentalization of the society. This is something we have to prevent, and it is one of the reasons why we feel it is so important to institutionalize the bond between Turkey and the EU."