Will the Change in Greece Mean a Boon to Ties With Israel?

The focus for now is finance, but the new leftist government might opt to provide a real counterweight to Turkey.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in Brussels, February 2015.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in Brussels, February 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Despite the rain, snow and bitter cold, thousands of Athenians converged on Syntagma Square, across from the impressive national parliament, to show their support for the new government. Men, women and children marched quietly through the streets as demonstrators poured out of Metro stations and areas were closed to traffic.

“We believe in this government, but not in Europe,” one participant told Haaretz. “The rich countries choked us. They caused the enormous tax burden. They turned us into paupers. Now we have a new government that isn’t afraid.”

Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is the hero of the day. His gritty appearance and tough talking have earned him the nickname Bruce Willis.

“The cabinet is filled with hot guys,” said a Greek female journalist. Hot or not, the question is whether Varoufakis can bend Europe’s Iron Lady, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As another journalist put it, “I’m skeptical. Europe is fed up. You have to admit that we greatly contributed to our situation, and I can see why Germany isn’t willing to pay more for our laziness.”

Janis, the manager of a clothing store, agreed. “Look at us, the store owners,” he said. “Three times a week we close at 3:30 P.M. Why? It’s how it’s always been. We like to rest.”

So will things be different now? “They promised to lower taxes, but we didn’t promise to work more,” he said.

The new decision makers don’t just have the economy on their minds. Shortly after the historic election, the winds of protest against Europe’s “foreign oppression” are still blowing. Political and foreign-policy issues may have taken a backseat, but they’re still feeding the sense of hopelessness against alleged “hostile moves” by Turkey.

“I don’t understand why Turkish planes have to carry out sorties” in Greek airspace, said a senior air-force officer. “Why do they provoke us?”

“Why does Turkey continue to arm itself to the teeth if they have no intention of harming Greece?” a Greek diplomat wondered, while a member of the country’s diplomatic corps added: “We have no doubt: Turkey is our enemy.”

The speakers were among 80 top officers who recently gathered at the military college in Athens to hear an Israeli journalist lecture on the Middle East. During the question-and-answer session, one colonel inquired whether Greece could replace Turkey as Israel’s closest friend.

Another senior officer asked whether the new military cooperation between Greece and Israel was “genuine or a temporary substitute until relations between Israel and Turkey are revived.” Another wanted to know how Greece could get involved in the peace process.

Air-force cooperation

It’s not hard to understand their doubts. Greece has never been viewed in Israel as a strategic partner, while in Greece, Israel has been seen as an occupying power, and even worse, as a friend of Turkey. The new government in Athens is suspected of “insufficient fondness” for Israel and “over-fondness” for the Palestinians.

But political and diplomatic contingencies can create new opportunities, and when Israel asked for permission to use Greek airspace for military training, Greece agreed – it hosts many of the joint exercises. Still, it seems Greece and Israel haven’t yet defined the nature of their relationship; they’re still getting acquainted.

“We’re waiting for decisions,” a senior official in Greece’s Foreign Ministry said. “In the meantime, we’re following the previous protocol.”

In other words, despite reconciliation talks, Turkey is still considered Greece’s main enemy, and the Turks view Greece as the obstacle to Ankara’s joining the European Union. “We aren’t hindering anything. I’m willing to declare now that all subjects concerning Turkey’s accession to the EU should be opened,” the official said.

The “subjects” include Turkey’s economy and approach to human rights. Conditions for EU membership are divided into policy fields, or chapters, such as economic and monetary policy and freedom of movement for workers.

Certain chapters must be closed before others are opened for evaluation. The senior Foreign Ministry official is willing to have all chapters evaluated at the same time because “in any event, the Turks won’t meet the criteria.”

Would Greece take on Turkey’s role in the Middle East? “The truth is, we neglected the Mideast,” the official said. “We didn’t even try to compete with Turkey. But maybe now there will be a new policy.”

“Maybe” and “it seems” are the watchwords, whether the issue is an economic agreement with Europe or foreign-policy matters. But the uncertainty also represents a window of opportunity for Greece and Israel. Their relationship doesn’t have to remain somnolent.

Greece doesn’t have to be taken out only as a last option because we lost Turkey. It doesn’t have to be Turkey on one side and Greece on the other. Better would be a relationship that stands on its own.

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