Menu JTA Search

Greek Jews Hope Papandreou is Better Second Time Around

Andreas Papandreou’s surprise return to power as prime minister of Greece has brought back memories within the country’s small Jewish population of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiments that permeated the Socialist leader’s earlier regime.

Jews and Israelis are hoping that this time around the Papandreou administration will be more favorable toward Israel and Jews, building on the greatly improved relations forged by the just-ousted regime of Constantine Mitsotakis.

Papandreou’s Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement staged a stunning comeback in Sunday’s national elections, winning by a 7.5 percent margin over Mitsotakis’ liberal New Democracy Party.

The Socialists captured 171 of Parliament’s 300 seats, enabling Papandreou to stage a dramatic return to power after corruption charges and scandal drove him from office four years ago.

During his previous term as prime minister, which lasted from 1981 to 1988, Greek Jews believed that his policies were not only anti-Israel but anti-Semitic as well.

He is remembered for freeing several Palestinian terrorists from prison and calling them “freedom-fighters.”

His government’s attitude last time around was considered ironic.

Most Greek Jews, who number less than 5,000 out of a population of almost 10 million, had thought the Socialists would be favorable to Greek Jews and Israel. Never in the history of Greek politics had a government had so many Jewish connections as that one had.

Papandreou, a world-renowned economist during the 1960s and 1970s, owed a large debt of gratitude to a Jew — Stanley Sheinbaum, an American economist who saved Papandreou from the junta of the Greek colonels in 1967.

Three other members of Papandreou’s former government also had close ties to Jews.

Greece’s foreign minister at the time, John Haralambopoulos, had an Israeli son from his first marriage to an Israeli woman.

And Papandreou’s spokesman, John Rubatis, was married to an American Jew, as was his finance minister, Gerassimos Arsenis.

‘JEWISH CONNECTIONS’ SERVED FOR NOUGHT

Papandreou’s “Jewish connections” went even further, since his father, George, who himself had been a Greek prime minister, had been smuggled to Egypt during the Nazi occupation of Greece by an underground Jewish organization.

Despite all these connections, things did not turn out as Jews had expected.

Jews remember a remark Papandreou made on national television while having Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat standing at his side.

Papandreou had told Arafat that the Israelis “are doing to you what the Nazis did to them.”

And of all the foreign policy promises he made at the time, many Greek Jews recall that the only one Papandreou did keep was not recognizing Israel.

Small wonder that the local Jewish community here has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the Socialists this time around. Most members of the community will admit that international circumstances have changed, thereby forcing the Socialists to change, too.

Nissim Mais, president of the Central Board of Greek Jews, commenting on the Socialists’ return to power, remarked that Jews in Greece and throughout the Diaspora are troubled by “racism and fascism.”

The Socialists’ position on this, he said, “is well-known.”

Most political and diplomatic observers here believe that relations between Greece and Israel will continue to be warm, a relationship that was purposely fostered by Mitsotakis as soon as he came to power.

Almost immediately upon taking the reigns of the government, Mitsotakis created diplomatic relations with Israel, overturning 40 years of very low-level ties between the neighboring countries.

After that, one of the first joint endeavors the two nations embarked upon was a tourism agreement.

In fact, the two countries’ tourism ministers will join those of Turkey and Egypt at a meeting next month in London to formally dedicate the Eastern Mediterranean Tourism Association, which is itself a quiet revolution grown out of the new peace.

One political observer here believes that Greek-Israeli relations will not only continue to be good but will improve as a result of the historic accord signed in Washington on Sept. 13 by Israel and the PLO.

On July 23, Papandreou met with Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin.

According to a source at the meeting, Papandreou told Beilin, “Before you say anything, let me tell you this: In the ’80s, my interests were with the Arabs, so I supported them. In the ’90s my interests are with Israel. That is why I will support you.”

The Jewish community here is hoping the new prime minister will live up to his word.

NEXT STORY