[CORRECTION: In the story titled "Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn at Athens panel on Middle East politics in the Trump era," the first sentence of the third paragraph from the end should be corrected as follows: "Israel's interest in Syria, Benn said, revolves around two issues, avoiding the spillage of war into Israel and preventing the arms transfers from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah." The corrected article follows in its entirety.]

Aluf Benn, the distinguished journalist and editor-in-chief of Tel Aviv-based Haaretz newspaper, spoke on "The East Mediterranean and the Middle East in Trump’s Era" at a panel discussion sponsored by the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) and the Embassy of Israel on Tuesday.

Introduced by ANA director general Michalis Psylos, Benn reviewed the current situation following the United States' policy of withdrawal from the Middle East, Turkey's external policy and relations with Greece, Russia and the United States, and Israel’s foreign policy, especially its alliances in the region.

Asked if he thought an "accident in the Aegean" was possible between Greece and Turkey, Benn commented that "if your goal is to be jingoistic with your voters, there are other ways than war," noting that "there are mechanisms to prevent such an incident" that did not exist in the past. Turkey's rhetoric "may be less predictable (today), but its basic mechanism of playing foreign powers against each other hasn’t changed," Benn said.

He also pointed out that if Turkey truly wanted to break relations with the US, it would have left NATO and told America to remove its military bases. "Turkey has always tried to extract the best from both sides" of a conflict, he said, whether in World Wars or in Syria.

In Israel's case, "the two Turkish red lines that Israel has been very careful not to cross" are the Armenian genocide, protests of which the government will stop, and support of the Turkish Kurds. Israel may cooperate with Kurds, "but is very careful not to get involved with Turkish Kurds," he said.

In terms of the Palestinian issue, Benn did not rule out the resolution of the Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution: "I don't think it's impossible for Palestinians to accept a two-state solution, but it's practically and politically difficult." Hamas will not accept an Israel state under any form, he explained, while the Palestinian National Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is further weakened by the lack of a clear mechanism for his successor. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy is "to cater to his voter base" avoiding experiments and annexations.

He pointed out however that the level of tension has risen steeply with Palestinians, and is expected to rise further at the approach of May 14, when the US moves the embassy to Jerusalem, and May 15, it is an annual day of commemoration of the displacement that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. 

Israel's interest in Syria, Benn said, revolves around two issues, avoiding the spillage of war into Israel and preventing the arms transfers from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah. While US President Donald Trump has not revealed yet his strategy for the region, the vacuum already left by the Obama administration has provided Israel with an opportunity to act without fearing it will hurt American troops during operations. It has also brought Israel closer to its neighboring nations against Iran, especially Saudi Arabia. The latter "tacit alliance is easier politically than an open alliance, because an open alliance means that Israel must pay with some concession, must give something considerable to the Palestinians," Benn noted, and is politically convenient for both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Asked if there is a role the European Union could play in the region, he said that for European countries, the best way of dealing with issues is on bilateral level. "Experience shows that if you do not resolve bilateral issues, you cannot initiate a regional approach," Benn said, responding to a question on an alliance of peace for nations of the area.

Panelists addressing questions to Benn included journalists George Kapopoulos (Ethnos), Nicolas Zirganos (Efimerida ton Syntakton) and George Angelopoulos (ANA), while questions were also provided by Nicolas Vafiadis (Antenna) and Fanis Papathanasiou (ERT). The event was attended by Israel’s ambassador Irit Ben Abba, and several ambassadors and embassy representatives of Bulgaria, Croatia, FYROM, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Moldova, and three Greek MPs, from Syriza (Eleni Avlonitou) and New Democracy (George Koumoutsakos, Ioannis Kefalogiannis).

Artemis Hionides