Symbol go
GD         Turnover  mln.

Irit Ben Abba: Israeli businessmen are waiting for a signal from Greeces Tsipras

“The partnership between Greece and Israel is very crucial and we are happy that the Greek governments see the value as well”,  the Israeli Ambassador to Greece, Irit Ben-Abba, said in an exclusive interview with

She notes that Israel wants to cooperate with Greece and Cyprus and hopefully with other eastern Mediterranean countries; like-minded countries that share the same ideas on what this part of the world should look like.

“I believe that during Tsipras visit to Israel he will express his will to encourage the Israeli business sector to come and do business in Greece”, she said adding that “the Israeli business sector is waiting to hear something like this”.

Interview with Marisi Baliousi

How would you assess the development of the Greek-Israeli relations during the last 6 years?

They are moving ahead very fast. Fast-forward if you wish. We are very satisfied with the pace, the intimacy and the content, even though we should always aspire to increase the content. The basket could be very full. We have managed to re-engage the government with a very political dialogue on a very high level with Israel and this is very important. And now it is much more intensified than it was in the past. We have managed to establish a very good dialogue with all the Greek governments that have been in place in the last 6 years.

Is this due to the will both sides?

On Israel’s part there has always been intensive will. We have been waiting for this to happen for the last 67 years, I could say. I’m always quoting the first PM of Israel David Ben-Gurion who, while formalizing the strategic foreign and defense policies of Israel – that is relatively relevant until these days,  even though the Middle East has changed– spoke about circles of countries that Israel had to partner with, and of course he mentioned Greece. This was in 1948, when the state of Israel was established. So this has been our wish since then.

The partnership between the two countries is very crucial to us and we are happy that the Greek governments see the value as well. Plus, the more chaotic the Middle East becomes, the more relevant this partnership is.

Why do you consider the partnership with Greece crucial? And what about Cyprus?

We want to cooperate with Greece and Cyprus and hopefully with other eastern Mediterranean countries; like-minded countries that share the same ideas on what this part of the world should look like.

Greece and Cyprus, being members of the EU, have the experience of belonging to a partnership of 28 countries. In Israel, we don’t have anything like this. Of course we are members of the UN, but this is a very large family. We need a smaller family. On the right-hand side of Israel we only see problems. Hopefully one day we could cooperate with these countries as well. On the left side we have friendly states that are like-minded and we should definitely partner with those.

Also, we look forward to enlarging the scope of our bilateral relations in any field possible. The skys the limit.

The trilateral cooperation is also extremely important. I always talk about geometrical structures. We started with the triangle and we should expand it. This trilateral cooperation could include othercountries that are important and are like minded. And maybe through this we can bring peace to the region, hopefully.

We also appreciate the will of the Greek government to push forward with this process in the Middle East. I think Greece can be really influential because you have excellent relations with all the partners, not only the Palestinians but also the Gulf countries, North African countries - you can be a bridge between us and all this world that we need sometimes bridges to get to.

What are the sectors that Greece, Israel and also Cyprus cooperate on?

There are plenty of areas that Greece, Cyprus and Israel could cooperate on. Energy is number one, of course, and we should start talking seriously now about a trilateral cooperation in energy.

Besides energy, tourism is another sector that could be a very strong pillar to our trilateral cooperation. We could provide, for example, common packages to third countries, like Asia for instance, or maybe cruises in the eastern Mediterranean that would include Cyprus,

Greece, Israel as well as other countries, like Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia.

he environment, is one more sector.. And I’m not talking about environmental problems that might be created because of leakages of gas fields and oil fields. I am referring to anything that has to do with maritime environmental hazardous incidents.

Any other sectors?

Terrorism is also a very important aspect in our trilateral cooperation. Illegal immigration is another topic, a problem that we have also faced in the past and that we still do actually.

Water is also a big issue, plus innovation.

So, we are talking about a total of 7 sectors that were all set at the Secretary Generals’ meeting of the ministries of the three countries in Jerusalem in December. At the same meeting they also decided to establish a steering committee that will overlook these sectors, and this committee will hold its first meeting in Nicosia on Wednesday.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras will visit Israel on Tuesday and then on Wednesday together with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu they will visit Nicosia for a trilateral meeting.  What’s on the agenda?

It’s the first time that the three leaders meet in a triangle format. The focus is going to be on energy and tourism. The steering committee that will hold a meeting parallel to the Heads of State/Government will discuss all the other issues as well. So there will be a forum where leaders will meet and make statements and most likely there will be content to the trilateral cooperation, perhaps with concrete action taking.

What would you expect PM Tsipras to say during his visit in Israel?

I believe that PM Tsipras will express his will to encourage the Israeli business sector to come and do business in Greece. Not just in high technology; this is important. The Israeli business sector is waiting to hear something like this.

At the moment, companies are leaving Greece. Wouldn’t that affect the Israelis’ decisions?

Israelis are risk-takers. Of course they don’t want to risk their money for nothing. But just by giving them a hint that there is stability in Greece, or if they hear words like “trust us” or that there are specific projects that are relevant to them, all these would trigger action.

I know that there are a lot of people in Israel who want to invest in hotels in Greece. On the other side there are a lot of Greeks who want to get rid of theirs. Also, there are companies in Greece that need financial resources and good management. This could be of interest to Israelis as well. Not to buy companies, but to be partners and to revive them through infusion of money, management, innovation etc.

There is money in Israel that is looking for investments outside of he country and Greece is very, very close. So what else do you need?

Also, there is an understanding that Greece today is not like Greece of the past. Greece today is stable, it’s going in the right direction. It’s just that we need to get a more clear understanding on what are the incentives here for foreign investors.

Are there any specific joint projects underway, as far as Greece and Israel are concerned?

At the bilateral meeting there will be, for the first time, a joint statement between PM Tsipras and PM Netanyahu on innovation and entrepreneurship which will focus on the areas the two countries want to collaborate on. Some of the components of this agreement are already there. In 2006 we signed an agreement that calls companies from both countries to cooperate on research and development. Their collaboration is financed by both governments.

We want to build on that and add some more components and then to form a sort of bilateral cooperation on innovation and entrepreneurship. So the joint statement that is going to be signed by the Greek and the Israeli Prime Ministers would lead the way to this agreement that we will hopefully sign very soon. We have to fine-tune with the Greek Ministry of Innovation what are the areas of interest to the Greek side, so we could cooperate in the most efficient way. I’m talkingabout workshops, incubators, commercialization of IP. But we have to be sure that this is what the Greek side wants and that there’s also financing for it. We are very flexible, whatever you would ask from us, we can accommodate. But we need to know what the requests are.

Financing would be the key question here…

Yes, but there is money coming from the EU.

So, one pillar is government-to-government cooperation on innovation and entrepreneurship. Are there any others?

Another pillar is the private sector and there the sky’s the limit. At this moment we are finalizing the whole idea of mentorship, with one very respectable organization in Greece, but I cannot reveal the name of it because we haven’t finalized it yet.

You personally have been extremely active with the start-up area. Gathering individuals, organizing events, bringing people over from Israel. What is the feedback you have so far from both sides?

The Greek side is very enthusiastic. When people from Israel come over, the Greeks seem to feel that they can learn a lot from them.
This is why we want to launch a mentorship program and we are really disturbed that we have not started yet. But hopefully we will very soon. So, we see the eagerness, the will, the thirst even, and the wish of the Greeks to learn from our experience. Bear in mind, we started with the startups 30 years ago, while Greece just started 5 years ago.

There are many young people here that are very eager to learn whatever has to do with start ups. So on the Greek side we see a lot of enthusiasm. And the more, the merrier.

Do you see any potential as well though?

Definitely yes. One Greek start-up is already in cooperation with a couple of hospitals in Israel. However Israelis are more interested in the deep technology developments and less in the apps ecosystem. What I’d really like to see is Israeli companies opening up R&D centers in Greece or recruiting teams of engineers here. Israeli companies areoutsourcing good engineering work still in Ukraine, even Bulgaria -and Greece is not an option yet for them, because they don’t know this market. So we need one good example of an Israeli company that outsourced labor or engineering work here and then this could push others.

Would the startups be a solution to get out of the crisis?

No, I don’t believe it’s a solution. It’s one component.

So they would help…

Yes. It’s a missing sector here. In Israel start ups are a big thing.
In Greece it’s just starting. It can definitely develop. It’s also a matter of culture change, mentality change. Something we have beendoing the past 30 years. We always think about how to be more effective, more innovative. And it is something that starts from a very young age. And this starts with the education system. In Israel most schools have in courses in entrepreneurship and leadership. This is the name of the game today. Even in elementary school. Something that is lacking in Greece. And as far as I know it’s not part of the curriculum of the Ministry of Education.

In Israel people are not afraid to fail and if they do they are given a second even a third or a fourth chance. In Greece this is not the case.

This can easily change. I don’t think it’s in the DNA of the Greeks not to be willing to fail. It is just that the regulations are not there for them yet. The regulation should be such that if a businessperson fails to be given another chance.

In any case there is a chain in entrepreneurship. One has to start at a very young age and has to be taught that failing is fine, that what he has to do is to come up with new ideas. And that is the way to do better. So education is very important.

Let’s move back to politics. There have been moves to reconcile with Turkey after five years. Will this perhaps lead to the construction of the gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey? In the past, Cyprus was supposed to approve this pipeline. Is this still on?

Indeed, there are all kinds of renegotiations to normalize relations.

It’s been a long time. Erdogan in the last few weeks made some very interesting statements. After a visit, I think, to Saudi Arabia, he said “Israel is a very important country, we should have good relations with Israel”. These are things that he did not say in the past. If you ask me why he made such a statement now? It could be for many reasons. Maybe because of the bad relationship they have now with Russia. Maybe they feel isolated. They do have plenty of internal problems as well. It was just a few days ago there was the terroristic attack in Istanbul. Besides that, they have 2,5 million illegal immigrants and refugees, the economic situation is not so good.

All these maybe have pushed Erdogan into understanding that he has to normalize relations with Israel. This is fine with us. There are however certain things that Israel would like to see. First and foremost, the upgrading of the relations to full ambassadorial level.

Secondly, we want a commitment from the Turkish side that they will not be taking to court anybody that has to do or had to do with the Mavi Marmara case. This is a full commitment that we need from them.

We have already apologized, and have already expressed our will to compensate the families. Just a few days ago actually Hurriyet was reporting that a special fund is going to be created in which Israel will put the money and the Turkish government will compensate the families directly. So this is very crucial.

One more thing that is very crucial to us is for Turkey to cease any relationship - official and unofficial - with Hamas. They should close down the office of Hamas in Istanbul and in general stop any operation of Hamas in Turkey.

These are, from our side, very crucial things for us in order to normalize relations.

From the Turkish side there are two requests. One is lifting the blockade in Gaza -  which of course we will not do - and this is an issue, and secondly, the gas issue.

So it is very important in this particular point in time that the three leaders, of Israel, Cyprus and Greece, think about what we want to do on the energy sector. Now, one thing that we said many times in the past - I think this is clear to both Cyprus and Greece - is that our relations with Turkey will not be the same as they were before.

The level of intimacy and cooperation that we had with Turkey in the past, I don’t think it will be the same now.

The Turkish scenario has changed and Turkey is different today than it was before. So we need to take this into consideration. Also, Turkey is a very important country in the region. And when we talk about cooperation and partnerships I think also Greece sees Turkey as being part of these aspects. We cannot ignore Turkey, as much as we cannot exclude cooperating with Egypt in such big issues. These are very important countries in the eastern Mediterranean. We are very small.

Cyprus is small, Greece is small. The new giants of the region are Turkey and Egypt,that unfortunately do not have good relations with each other.

A few days ago the international sanctions against Iran were lifted. Does this affect you in any way?

It’s not something that we did not expect. So there were no major surprises. Right after the decision PM Netanyahu said that we still need to monitor very carefully what Iran does because in the past Iran didn’t follow the international policies, rules and regulations. So Iran is to be followed very closely. And this is something that we keep saying all the time.

With sanctions having been lifted, Iran will be able to export oil and gas, even though the prices are extremely low. In this aspect I don’t think that they should expect a large income, as they might have expected before. I also understand their need to upgrade their facilities because they are quite old. So a lot of investment must be done. They will have access to the bank accounts that were frozen, there will be business cooperations with Europe, with the USA etc. On the other hand, and this was also mentioned by PM Netanyahu, we have all kinds of agreements with the USA that will provide us with the necessary security arrangements. We have to protect ourselves in case

Iran uses non-conventional and conventional nuclear capabilities.

Do you believe that the Russian intervention in Syria provides a more or a less secure environment for Israel?

What we really wish for is that the Syrian crisis is over and that people are not killed every day. The sooner, the better. In any case, the northern border has been a major concern to us in the last few years. We have to protect ourselves. The security of Israel is very important. Anything that will protect the northern border of Israel and prevent escalation of the situation is agreeable to us. So far we have not seen a lot of terrorist organisations with capabilities to attack Israel from the northern side. We have few incidents from time to time but fortunately not that many. The only ones that get to the border with Israel are those seeking medical treatment and they do getthat.

Besides that, we don’t want to see an escalation on our border with Lebanon from Hezbollah etc.

What is your take regarding the recent trend of parliamentary resolutions, including of Greece, recognizing the state of Palestine?

We are not very happy as you can imagine - although it wasn’t a resolution, it was more of a declaration by the Greek Parliament - and we expressed our dismay at every level possible, here in Athens and in Israel as well.

We do understand that this is something that has been sort of a commitment to the Palestinians, for a long time.
We can’t ignore this. So yes, we were disappointed but the other hand, the text was mild. So the Parliament switched the burden to the government and now the government has to decide whether they want to recognize the state of Palestine.

We are concerned with initiatives to internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This will lead nowhere. The French  are pushing for the ISGs (International Support Groups) to the Palestinians, something that will push everything from the regional to the international community. Of course we disagree with this completely, and there are a lot of countries that disagree also, but the French are pushing very hard their point of view in the European Union. Anything that has to do with the internationalization of the conflict between us and the Palestinians, we disapprove completely.

We need to sit down with the Palestinians, not in the UN, not in Geneva, not in Vienna - I’m mentioning a lot of these capitals where the agreements were signed lately - but either in Jerusalem or in Ramallah.

These are the only places we can discuss the conflict with the Palestinians. And unfortunately we see that there is no will on the Palestinian side and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) in doing so. We are very concerned about the new leadership. We don’t know who will replace Abu Mazen and this is a big issue to us, it is very important for the future of the conflict with Israel and for the region.

Follow to Social Media
  Did you find this article interesting?: