With the Middle East in Flames, Israel and Greece Get Closer

The confluence of economic woes at home and the chaos in the surrounding neighborhood got Greeks to appreciate the advantages in improved ties with Israel.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, hold joint a press conference, in Jerusalem. November 25, 2015.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, hold joint a press conference, in Jerusalem. November 25, 2015. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

With stormy weather at home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can at least derive some satisfaction from Israel’s improving relations with several countries. True, the refusal of his former and current governments to advance the peace process with the Palestinians has lost him support in Western Europe and stoked a crisis with the Democratic administration in the United States.

But Israel’s developing economic ties with East Asia are less affected by the occupation, while Netanyahu has exploited the shake-up in the Arab world to strengthen diplomatic ties, with Jordan and Gulf states. And now there are growing signs of a new regional alliance with Greece and Cyprus, and to some extent Egypt.

Signs of a turnaround in Athens’ approach to Israel were apparent during a visit by Israeli journalists to Greece last week. Greece’s air force chief prides himself on owning an oil painting by Moshe Dayan. He obtained it from the owner of a Greek restaurant in Tel Aviv through a close friend, a Greek Jew.

Meanwhile, a senior official at Greece’s Defense Ministry has in his office a book of Israeli aerial photographs that he received from the Israeli military’s manpower chief, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, who visited Greece last year.

Officials in the Greek Defense Ministry say they have asked Israel to help them set up an effective air intelligence system. The Greeks have been weak in intelligence since the trauma of the military junta from 1967 to 1974.

Greece needs such prowess due to the increasing risks posed by radical Islamist groups in Europe. Fifteen years ago Israel caused revulsion in Greece, says the editor of a large conservative newspaper. Since then a gradual process has taken place. The Greeks don’t quite understand it, but things have changed.

The turnaround is largely linked to the economic crisis that’s wearing the country down. Greece supported the Palestinian struggle for decades, relying on its extensive economic ties with the Arab world. When the crisis hit, the Arabs didn’t go out of their way to help, and they were later immersed in their own troubles with the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

IAF and Greek planes conducting a joint exercise in December 2011. Credit: Greek air force

Another milestone was the 2010 Gaza flotilla crisis that shattered what little was left of Israel’s relationship with Turkey. Jerusalem and Athens saw Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a common enemy.

Israel now needs Greece so it can forge an alternative regional axis and show that it’s not a pariah state due to the occupation. Greece is hoping for stronger military ties, intelligence assistance and economic opportunities, partly based on Israel’s natural-gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, Athens is less responsive to the woes of the Palestinian people.

A tight schedule of meetings with government officials and journalists enabled a quick view of a country still in shock from the economic crisis and demands by the European Union, mainly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It’s a kind of occupation, says Nikos Xydakis, Greece’s alternate minister for European affairs and a member of the ruling leftist Syriza party. On both sides of the political map, as well as with media analysts, one hears pessimism tinged with bitterness. The common view is that the crisis will last for years and the worst is yet to come.

Security concerns are a lower priority, but here too Greece faces new challenges. The country has been the first European station for tens of thousands of refugees escaping Mideast war zones over the past year, mainly Syria. (Greeks suspect that Turkish smugglers have been only too happy to add to Athens’ woes, with Ankara turning a blind eye.) With the refugee waves came the danger of potential terrorists, which Greece is totally unprepared for.

Xydakis, a former journalist, says the main constraint of his political career is his inability to say whatever comes to mind. He says the Greeks have to bear the economic crisis just as they had to bear the German occupation during World War II.

He says Greece’s European partners sacrificed the Greeks in order to balance their finances. Europe invested huge sums to battle the crisis, but the money went to the banks, not Athens. The recovery will start in a few years but the Greeks will be slaves to their debts for decades, he says. The burden will fall on their children and grandchildren.

The confluence of economic woes at home and the strategic shake-up abroad got Xydakis, a former communist, to appreciate the advantages in improved ties with Israel.

He says both countries are in the middle of a region in anarchy. The Mediterranean is going up in flames. Black holes are sucking in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Millions are fleeing Syria, bringing with them chaos and occasionally terror.

As Xydakis puts it, Greece and Israel thus need each other. They have a mutual respect as nations with thousands of years of history, but 97 percent of relations between states rests on common interests, he says. The Greeks respect the Palestinians and at this point don’t have to choose between them and the Israelis.

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