Greek PM to Haaretz: We Could Help Mediate Middle East Peace Agreements

Papandreou lands in Israel after short stop in Cyprus, dismisses suggestion, raised by one of his hosts, that his visit was directly related to the Israeli-Turkish crisis.

Greece could help mediate peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, its prime minister, George Papandreou, told Haaretz in an interview on Friday.

Benjamin Netanyahu and George Papandreou

Asked if Greece would offer to mediate between Israel and Syria, he said "my father [a former prime minister] and I traditionally had close relations with many Arab leaders in the area. Yes, we could help. We won't impose ourselves but yes, we could help, it's in our interest and the interest of the Middle East."

Papandreou, 58, a former foreign and education minister, party leader and sociology expert, grew up in the thick of Greek political life. He took over as prime minister less than a year ago.

Papandreou landed in Ben-Gurion International Airport after a short stop in Cyprus, but dismissed the suggestion, raised by one of his hosts, that his visit was directly related to the Israeli-Turkish crisis.

"My visit was planned a long time ago. I've been thinking of forging closer ties with Israel for about two years. This is not my first visit to Israel. As chairman of Pasok [the Panhellenic Socialist Movement his father founded], I've had warm ties with the sister parties - Labor and Meretz - as well as the Palestinian sister parties - PLO and Barghouti's party," he said.

"Relations between the Greeks and the Jews go back many years." He did not go into detail, but Greek commentators say that in addition to the change in Greek public opinion regarding the history of Greek's Jews before and during the Holocaust, centrists and leftists are now encouraging Greece to expand its relations in the Middle East.

But Papandreou picks his words carefully. First, because he is called "the American," having been born to an American mother and having spent years abroad.

Second, because he is not interested in upsetting the fragile balance of power between Israel, Turkey and Greece; he is even less interested in spoiling the small improvement he achieved in his country's relations with Turkey over the past year.

Third, because the word "occupation" is a red rag to his voters, and as long as Israel does not withdraw from the occupied territories they won't hear of it as an ally.

On the eve of his trip to Cyprus, which marked 36 years of Turkish occupation, he told the Greek media "it is time to close the wound of the occupation." He also called on Turkey to demonstrate political goodwill for a just arrangement on the divided island.

As for the Israeli occupation, Papandreou says his position is clear. "We want to see the end of the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state, a stable and viable state that would live in full cooperation and peace with Israel," he said. "Eventually it will be the best guarantee for Israel's security."

When an agreement is finally reached in Cyprus, it could serve as a model for the Israelis and Palestinians, he said.

Many Greek pundits do not believe Turkey is really willing or able to cut itself off from Europe and the United States and join the Muslim world. But they see the Israeli-Turkish crisis as an excellent strategic opportunity for Greece to establish economic, cultural, diplomatic and military ties with Israel. Economic cooperation would include tourism.

Despite the agreements between Turkey and Greece and the goodwill Papandreou showed at his visit with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately after Greece's October elections, Cyprus is only one point of friction between them.

Asked why he was visiting now, the first visit by a Greek prime minister in 30 years, Papandreou smiled and said "this is our neighborhood. I live in the area and I'm trying to be a good neighbor and help."

When asked about Syria, he said, "We depend on each other, all the countries depend on each other. If we don't work together and find a democratic, peaceful and just solution for our problems, our societies would be exposed to populism, xenophobia, polarization, violence, frustration and a rejection of democracy."

From the start of the crisis, Papandreou warned that Greece was on the edge of the abyss. On the other hand, he firmly resisted pressures by the European Union.

"Greek people feel they are not responsible for the crisis, but rather the politicians who misused the tax payers money," he said, explaining why he would not impose harsher decrees and cutbacks.

He admits there are difficulties, but lists a few successes as well. He sees every crisis as "an opportunity for the progressive people to save civilization from the lurking dangers."