Head to Head / Minister Geroulanos, Did Greece Have an Interest in Stopping the Flotilla to Gaza?

Greece's minister of culture and tourism Pavlos Geroulanos on the Gaza flotilla, the Greek economy and relations between Israel and Greece.

Pavlos Geroulanos, Greece’s minister of culture and tourism, who arrived in Israel this week for a brief and packed visit, seems more optimistic than expected. Geroulanos, 45, a graduate of Harvard University with a Master’s degree in public administration and an MBA from MIT, climbed the ranks rapidly as a successful manager. In 1999, he began working as an adviser to George Papandreou, then the minister of foreign affairs and has been considered a close confidante ever since.

During the years when the governing Pasok ‏(Socialist‏) party was in the opposition ‏(2006-2009‏), Geroulanos was Papandreou’s bureau chief and ran the election campaign. After the party’s victory in 2009, he was appointed to the double position and remained there even after the dramatic cabinet reshuffling last month. Geroulanos, the son of a well-known family of art collectors from the island of Kefalonia in the Ionian Sea, is responsible for the two areas that are considered the bread and butter ‏(and also the spirit and pride‏) of the Greek economy and society. Now he is looking for creative ways to use them as tools for rescuing Greece. He prefers to define this effort as “creating a springboard.”

Pavlos Geroulanos - Nir Keidar - 14072011
Nir Keidar

As someone well acquainted with the decision making process in Papandreou’s immediate circles, can you say that the decision of the Greek government to cooperate with Israel in blocking the flotilla to Gaza was a result of pressures?

Absolutely not. I, however, was not directly involved in the decision, but I knew what was happening. I can say with full responsibility that the Greek government acted according to the United Nations resolution on monitoring humanitarian aid to Gaza, including supervising goods and coordinating with the aid recipients. Furthermore, Papandreou was personally in constant contact with ‏(Palestinian Authority President‏) Mahmoud Abbas.

If so, there was no Israeli exploitation here of your country’s economic weakness as the Greek opposition hinted?

Greece’s current economic situation is not subject to diplomatic considerations. Whoever follows Papandreou’s foreign policy was not surprised. Papandreou has also advocated for involvement in the Middle East peace process and he sees Greece as a potential mediator between the parties. This was the principle that guided him in the attempts to move closer to Turkey, and in the involvement in the Balkan countries, and even the position he took on Afghanistan. We, in Pasok, always talked of a two states for two people solution, and we have maintained balance in our ties with both parties. I don’t understand why stopping the flotilla is understood as aid to Israel.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly, a new era in Israel-Greece relations recently began?

True, but before that you must first describe what the previous era was like. For many years, there was tension between the two countries, primarily due to Greece’s pro-Arab stance. Papandreou brought about a change in this stance, without affecting the close relationship with the Arab side. Exactly like what happened with Turkey − the first thing he saw fit to do after his election was to meet with ‏(Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip‏) Erdogan.

The Israelis see this warming between the two countries as a direct result of the chill in Israel’s ties with Turkey − as do quite a few Greek commentators. That is a mistake. Take, for example, another triangle, which ostensibly appears different but actually consists of the same elements: Israeli-Egyptian ties and all the changes that have occurred in them, on the one hand, and Greek-Egyptian ties, which are stable, on the other hand. Did Greece change or will it change something in its ties with Egypt, or with Israel, given any kind of change in the Israel-Egypt relationship? Of course not; and as far as Turkey is concerned, the Cyprus issue that has yet to be resolved, is a significant stumbling block in Greece-Turkey relations, and nevertheless, we are managing to, and are very interested in, maintaining the ties and even improving them. But why do I need tension between Israel and Turkey in order to deepen ties with Israel? Isn’t it enough for me to rely on the positive reasons for deepening the relations?

So let’s talk about the reasons. This is your third visit to Israel within a relatively short time, and you have already managed to develop close tourism ties. Is this not also a result of the distancing from Turkey?

Even if that is partially true, as far as the Israeli tourist is concerned, this is not the reason for the extensive activities we are now nurturing with Israel. Greece lost a substantial share of traditional tourism from Germany and Britain, eight percent from each one, due to several traumatic incidents − the fire at the Athens bank that took a heavy cost in lives; the cloud of volcanic ash that grounded charter flights; and the economic crisis. There is an urgent to reorganize and open up to new tourism markets.
So what is it that you have found? The Israeli market − this teeny little market?
First of all, it’s not so teeny. This year alone, 400,000 Israelis have visited Greece.

Going to the large islands?

Yes, but not only there. There are also tens of thousands in Salonika. It is a big success.
And it is certainly not an all-included tour package. Interesting.
Yes, but the collaboration is much more interesting. In searching for new markets we found Serbia, Russia and China, and this is where the Israeli tourist ventures enter the picture. We created great things together − for example, a joint tourism package from China to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and from there to Athens to the Acropolis and other selected sites.

Israeli-Greek tourism for the Chinese?

Exactly. Today there is an Israeli entrepreneur who is buying a hotel in Greece and preparing it for hosting Chinese tourists exclusively! And that is just a small part of it. We had a problem because we did not have any flights to China and now, through collaboration, we have gained this as well.
But Israelis who tried investing in Greece claim it is impossible to get past the bureaucratic hurdles.

This is a subject that I am trying to expose here and now. We took some really aggressive steps in order prepare the ground for a different kind of tourism development. We lowered the VAT on commodities for residential and tourist purposes, enacted a new investor-friendly piece of legislation and more; there have been dozens of changes to encourage entrepreneurialism.

And can such ventures extricate Greece from the crisis?

There is a misunderstanding about the crisis. It is not an economic crisis like the one experienced by the United States or England, but a crisis in the deeper administrative and social structure. From that Greece must and can extricate itself and its tourist sites and culture have a big role in this.