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The recent official state visit to Greece by Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon signified a drastic upturn in the relationship between Greece and Israel. And while neither Israel nor Greece considers Turkey officially as an enemy state, clearly the deterioration in the relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem provided the impetus for the tightening of relations between Greece and Israel.
There is a universally accepted maxim in the Middle East: “Your enemy’s enemy is your friend.” For Israel that friend used to be Turkey – whose enemies were the Arabs. As Turkey Islamized under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it turned against Israel. As for the Greeks, the Turks have been their perennial enemies, albeit, they are both NATO members. The island of Cyprus, invaded by Turkey in 1974, was subsequently split between the Greeks and Turks and is a constant source of friction. Greece has supported the Greek majority in the south of the island, while Turkey supports the Turkish minority in the northern part of the island. It is under these circumstances that Israel and Greece have finally found common ground, and mutual interest in a strategic alliance.
Years of stagnation in Greek-Israeli relations was temporarily halted when the two countries signed a military agreement in December 1994; however both sides refrained from activating the agreement. Greece worried about alienating the Arab world, while Israel was concerned about upsetting Turkey. In 1997 Greece and Israel agreed on joint naval maneuvers; however the Greeks decided to postpone them at the last moment. The events of September 11, 2001, and the rise of Islamism in the Middle East and the Balkans made it imperative for Greece to consider a strategic partnership with Israel. Sharing intelligence with Israel would, by all accounts, increase Greece’s security.
Israel and Turkey had considerable trade exchanges for many years (most recently in 2009 with $1.5 billion in exports to Turkey and $1.8 billion in imports from Turkey) with along with maintaining strong military ties. In the meantime, Greece has been catering to Arab investors from Lebanon and the Gulf. Not only did Greece trade heavily with the Arab world, more often than not it voted with the Arabs as well. The foreign policy of the Socialist Prime Minister of Greece, Andreas Papandreou sought to cultivate ties with the Arabs, especially terrorist groups like the P.L.O. and terror sponsoring states like Syria and Libya. This, along with Israel’s close ties with Turkey, led to distrust between the two states. The escalation in Turkish-Israeli relations following the re-election of Erdogan as Turkey’s Prime Minister, and his Islamist agenda, which sought close relations and a leadership role in the Arab and Muslim world, laid the foundation to the new partnership between Greece and Israel.
Turkey’s growing influence in the independent states that were formerly Ottoman provinces worries the Greeks, while Turkey’s cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran concerns Israel. Both Greece and Israel have come to realize that Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus might become a base for Islamic penetration of Europe. Moreover, the newly discovered Israeli offshore gas fields offer another avenue of cooperation. Israel views Greece not only as a gas procurer, but also as a European hub, from which Israeli gas could be channeled and sold to Europe.
When Israel experienced one of its most devastating firestorms in the Carmel Mountains last year, Greece immediately sent special fire-extinguishing aircraft. The lifesaving skills of Israel Defense Forces rescue crews have proven themselves to Greece in their frequent fight against fires.
The loss of Turkish airspace for Israeli Air Force (IAF) training and maneuvers has now been replaced by Greece’s airspace. Greece’s further distance from Israel provides an excellent opportunity for the IAF to train against Iranian targets. In fact, three-years ago, joint exercises were conducted in Greece that involved scores of Greek and Israeli jets.
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