When the State Department released its annual human rights report in April, it used the term "West Bank" for the first time instead of “occupied territories.” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman immediately tweeted, “The lie that these territories are occupied is beginning to get exposed.” The Israeli political right began rejoicing. While they would have preferred that the Americans take their lead and use the biblical “Judea and Samaria” to designate the land on the western bank of the Jordan River, they considered it a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, an event in Europe reminded that although issues of nomenclature can cause long and exhausting diplomatic crises, they cannot stop historical necessity.
After 27 years of independence, Macedonia might finally be recognized by an official name — the Republic of North Macedonia. For all these years, Greece had blocked the country’s membership in major international organizations, including NATO and the European Union, because Athens did not agree to it using its original name, Macedonia, even though that is the name by which it is best known. The Greeks claimed that the name was already taken by a strip of territory in the northern part of their country.
Negotiations over the new nation’s name repeatedly failed. There were even demonstrations in Greece to prevent Macedonia from being used by the state formed in 1991 following the breakup of Yugoslavia. When the two countries finally appeared to agree on a compromise, it was so obvious that they could have reached it 25 years ago.
I was in Athens 25 years ago, following a visit to Israel by the Greek deputy foreign minister. Before I left for Greece, I sat down for a final briefing with the heads of the European desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only a few days after that, Greece agreed to allow Macedonia to join the United Nations under a temporary name — the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — which was envisioned as only being used for three months, until a better solution could be found.
The ministry desk officers advised me on various points that would come up in conversations with Greek officials. Of note, they warned me about using the name “Macedonia.” Instead, they said, refer to the country in question by its English acronym, FYROM. During the flight to Greece, I kept reminding myself to use FYROM, all the while hoping that I wouldn't slip up. I was not so lucky.
My first meeting, with Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, was extremely cordial and businesslike. We covered all the issues on our agenda. Then, the issue of the new state somehow came up, and I uttered the word “Macedonia.” The president had a sudden change in mood, and genuine anger appeared on his face. Before I could offer a heartfelt apology, he told me in the gravest of tones that I must never call FYROM Macedonia.
From there, I went directly to the residence of the opposition leader, Andreas Papandreou, son of a former prime minister and father of another. Old and ailing by then, Papandreou confided that within a few months, he would be prime minister, which in fact he was. I knew him well from annual conferences of the Socialist International, so I thought I could talk to him, one friend to another, about the name Macedonia. When I told him about my slip of the tongue with Mitsotakis, however, he couldn’t even smile.
Papandreou then explained that there was no possibility of making a concession to the insolent Macedonians and that Greece would never agree to their adopting a name not rightfully theirs. When I asked him to explain the exact nature of the problem, he said that by calling the country Macedonia, they were making revanchist claims to northern Greece, including the all-important city of Thessaloniki. Papandreou then said that as prime minister, he would refuse to call FYROM Macedonia, even if doing so resulted in an international crisis.
I remarked that FYROM was one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, only Albania being poorer. Its military posed no threat to Greece, nor would it in the foreseeable future. Given this, even if people knew that the name also refers to a swathe of Greek territory, the new nation wanting to be called Macedonia would not end with the Macedonian occupation of the northern part of his country.
Papandreou became so pale, it was heartbreaking. He turned to me and his young wife, who was seated beside him, and said, “Yossi is right. FYROM does not pose a threat to Greece. But if the country is called Macedonia, the day will come in 50 years, or maybe 100 years, or even 150 years, when it has a stronger army than it has now. Then, it will tell the world, ‘There’s a reason we are called Macedonia. You all recognized the name and were well-aware that Macedonia does not just refer to a tiny country north of Greece, but to an entire territory, which includes half of Greece itself! We are fighting for our land!’”
I did not tell Papandreou that at that time Israel was in the midst of intense negotiations with the PLO in Oslo, or that in those talks the Palestinians and the Israelis were both cautioned to avoid falling into verbal traps. I did, however, tell him that when Menachem Begin became prime minister, in 1977, he had made a point of referring to the PLO as the PMO, short for Palestinian Murderers Organization. He believed that by calling the organization by its actual name, he would be admitting that there is a Palestine and that it needed to be liberated.
I also told him that Begin was willing to have the 1978 Camp David Accords state in English that Israel recognizes the legitimate rights of the “Palestinians” so long as the Hebrew version of the agreement called them “the Arab population of the Land of Israel.” US President Jimmy Carter told him that he could write whatever he wanted in Hebrew, because the English text would be the authoritative version of the agreement.
I also told Papandreou that we referred to Sharm el-Sheikh as Ophira to underscore its Hebrew identity and that we eventually returned Ophira to Egypt along with the town of Yamit, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, and all the other Jewish settlements established on that beautiful peninsula. I commented on how Israelis are split between those who refer to the western bank of the Jordan River as the West Bank and those (right-wingers) who refer to the area as Judea and Samaria to emphasize that it is an integral part of the Land of Israel as claimed by the Jews and that a nation cannot forgo its roots. Nevertheless, it is not such nomenclature that will determine the border between Israel and some future Palestinian state.
Then, without warning, Papandreou smiled for the first and only time during our strange conversation. He had previously heard about the issue of Judea and Samaria, but now he had a suggestion. “Maybe you can make this compromise,” he said. “The Palestinians will agree to call the West Bank Judea and Samaria, and you transfer the territory to them, along with the Gaza Strip, so that they can establish their own state there.”
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