Greece and Israel: Reluctant Allies

A partnership that could change the region and history.

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.

Israel and Greece also share a common interest in combating Islamist terror.  Israeli security consultants helped the Greek security services prepare for the 2004 Athens Olympics.  Furthermore, Israel has informed the Greeks of the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives on Greek soil.

In economic terms Israel’s trade with Greece is relatively small compared to that with Turkey, but it is growing, In 2005 Israel’s exports to Greece amounted to $202M, in 2006 it grew to $245M, excluding services.  Conversely, Israel provides the largest market for Greece’s exports in the Middle East.  And with the Greek military budget being one of the highest in Europe at 3% of the GDP, the potential for Israeli arms sales to Greece is significant.  Tourism from Israel to Greece has increased considerably as Turkey has become less hospitable to Israelis. Israeli tourists no longer limit their vacations to the Greek islands, but make its Greek cities like Athens and Salonika part of their tours.  Approximately 250,000 Israeli tourists visited Greece in 2010, a 200% increase over the previous year.

In the first visit to Israel on July 23, 2010 by a Greek prime minister in decades, Prime Minister George Papandreou made a point of saying that “We too say never again!,” when referring to the Holocaust in which thousands of Greek Jews were murdered. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman declared that “Greece and Israel will undergo a major upgrade of relations.”  In his reciprocal visit to Greece the following month PM Benjamin Netanyahu said “We need a peaceful region—a peaceful Middle East region…we also hope that this trip will be a first step to keep improving bilateral relations with Greece.” The host, PM Papandreou then stated that, “Good relations between Greece and Israel should be complementary and not competitive with relations between Turkey and Israel.”

During last month’s visit to Greece by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, his Greek counterpart Dimitris Dollis stated that Israel-Greece relations upgraded in 2010 would continue and strengthen in the near future.  Dollis stressed that the ties between Greece and Israel would not be affected by change of governments in Greece. For his part, Ayalon stated that “Israel will defend Greek oil drilling in Cyprus” and added, “If anyone (Turkey or Hezbollah, JP) tries to challenge these drillings, we will meet those challenges.” It was agreed between the two deputy Foreign Ministers that Greece and Israel have common strategic interests in energy and energy security.

Considering the fact that Greece established diplomatic relations with Israel as late as 1992, the bilateral relations between these two Mediterranean nations has now matured enough to go a step further.  Perhaps economic interests and strategic considerations will supersede the idiomatic phrase “One’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend.”  Their common Judeo-Christian history and the threat of Islam have opened the door for a genuine alliance between Greece and Israel.  Their combined strength could change the region and history.

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