David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), is particularly critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an interview with Kathimerini, stressing that he “is playing a dangerous game throughout the region. That’s why he must face costs or else he will persist.”
He makes no bones about the matter, stating that “bullies don’t understand weakness or hesitation. That only whets their appetite for more mischief.”
Harris, who will be stepping down from the AJC helm in three months after a successful 32-year term, looks back at how the current close relationship between Greece and Israel was built, and declares that it has taken on institutional characteristics, as New Democracy, PASOK, but also SYRIZA – whose stance he says was the biggest surprise – follow the same policy.
He also talks about the great regional value of the Greece-Cyprus-Israel triangle, the close cooperation of the Jewish and Greek diaspora, while he does not hide the deep discomfort he felt about the rise of neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, noting that “[then conservative premier Antonis] Samaras, joined by [then] Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, unblinkingly took on Golden Dawn, labeled them criminals, which they surely were, and brought them to their knees.”
Can you describe the progression of Greek-Israeli relations during your long tenure as executive director of the American Jewish Committee?
It’s an amazing story. When I first became interested, in the early 1980s, in the potential of a Cyprus-Greece-Israel triangle, it seemed highly improbable, if not impossible. Cyprus saw its future largely in the Non-Aligned Movement, which was unfriendly territory for Israel. Greece hadn’t yet established full de jure relations with Israel, and was close to the PLO, Syria and Libya. And Israel, seeing little opportunity in Nicosia and Athens, was largely focused on developing ties with Turkey. Fast-forward 40 years, the triangle not only exists, but has become ever deeper and more strategic. The moral of this story: Never give up hope. It took longer than it should have, but the result is even more than we could possibly have imagined four decades ago.
Can you share some personal thoughts on the Greek leaders you have worked with over the years? Any welcome surprises or disappointments?
What’s been striking to me is that once the logic of the relationship with Israel took root, it soon became institutionalized in Greek foreign policy, so leaders of three different parties – Socialist [PASOK], SYRIZA and New Democracy – kept building on it. Perhaps the success with SYRIZA was the most surprising, given their negative starting point on issues related to Israel. But to his credit, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras understood that a country’s national interest shouldn’t be defined by ideological slogans alone, but rather by bottom-line political, military and economic interests, not to mention shared democratic values.
How difficult was it to see Golden Dawn get so many votes and attain the political presence it did, even if it was for a relatively short period of time?
That was tough. The idea that a neo-Nazi party could become a serious electoral factor in a country almost totally devastated by Nazi Germany in World War II was almost beyond belief. And I was told I would need protection in a country, Greece, where I had always felt safe because anti-Semitic goons were now on the warpath. In fact, I recall vividly a ghoulish Golden Dawn “cartoon” that had Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on his knees in front of the “all-powerful” American Jewish Committee. To his everlasting credit, Samaras, joined by Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, unblinkingly took on Golden Dawn, labeled them criminals, which they surely were, and brought them to their knees.
Let’s move to the present and the future of Greece-Israel relations, including the trilateral cooperation scheme with Cyprus. What is your view on the way forward?
I see a series of concentric circles. In the innermost, Greece, Cyprus and Israel continue along the path of deeper and wider cooperation in just about every imaginable bilateral and trilateral sphere. They are driven by overlapping interests and values. In the next circle, the field is widened to include other countries in the East Med with important roles to play in such fields as energy. And then, longer term, bringing together the widening circle of peace in the Middle East and North Africa with the Cyprus-Greece-Israel triangle makes a lot of regional sense. Could all this lead to new multilateral configurations? Absolutely. And we have seen one already – the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo.
What are your views on the bonds and cooperation between the Jewish-American and the Greek-American diasporas in the US and beyond?
In a way, it’s precisely these bonds linking American Jews and Hellenic Americans that drove the initial process in the 1980s. We were friends here in the US. We had so much in common that it was often difficult to figure out who were the Jews and who were the Hellenes in any room. So why couldn’t these commonalities prevail in the East Med as well? Our faiths, traditions and histories overlapped, and we were both at the heart of defining Western civilization as we know it. Surely, this should be the glue that binds us. And today, we can happily say that our cooperation extends across the US, across the Atlantic Ocean, and, yes, across the world.
Greece faces constant provocations, if not an existential threat, from its neighbor Turkey. How do you view the situation and what can the US do?
Turkey has managed to bamboozle one American administration after another into believing that it’s indispensable and, therefore, its often hostile policies should be downplayed, if not totally ignored. It is high time for Washington and its closest allies to send clear and consistent messages to Ankara that Turkey cannot play both sides of the fence – for instance, be a long-standing NATO member and, at the same time, pose a daily threat to Greece, occupy northern Cyprus, seek to leverage the historic Finnish and Swedish decisions to apply for NATO membership, and buy advanced Russian weapons systems. The White House voiced support for the sale of F-16s to Turkey. It says there was no deal to get Ankara to unblock the NATO bids of Finland and Sweden. Meanwhile, Turkey menaces NATO member Greece, occupies 40% of Cyprus, buys Russian arms. Why exactly should Turkey get the F-16s?
How do you view Turkey’s foreign policy actions, from the S-400s to its neutrality in the Ukraine war, to overflights over Greeks islands and lately even disputing their sovereignty?
Call it what you will – neo-Ottomanism, imperialism, political gamesmanship, or delusions of grandeur – but Erdogan’s Turkey is playing a dangerous game throughout the region. That’s why he must face costs or else he will persist. Bullies don’t understand weakness or hesitation. That only whets their appetite for more mischief.
Do you foresee a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, under Erdogan or another leader? And if this happens, what would it mean for the Greece-Israel relationship?
I hope one day Turkey will become a more responsible, predictable and reliable partner, and that it will end the occupation in Cyprus and behave peacefully with Greece. That would be in everyone’s best interests, including, notably, Turkey’s. As the larger region moves ahead cooperatively in many fields, including energy, does Turkey wish to be sidelined? Meanwhile, Israel understandably seeks improved ties with Turkey, a traditional friend, but it won’t be at the expense of Cyprus and Greece, two democratic allies. Values are values, and they create the foundations for enduring bonds.
Finally, what would you like Greeks and Greek Americans to remember the most from your leadership of the AJC?
We never stopped dreaming, we never succumbed to the obstacles in our path, and we never took no for an answer when it came to overcoming decades of chill in the Cyprus-Greece-Israel links. And the prize was well worth the effort. Now it’s time to dream the next chapter and bring the same determination to the effort. Together, we can help build a brighter future for Hellenes and Jews alike, not to mention the East Med and beyond.