Analysis

Israel Finds New Regional Allies: Greece and the Sunni States

As relations with Turkey grow distant, Arab states are less interested in Palestinians - they care about bartering with Israel ■ On the Syrian front, Israel is being more arrogant than cautious

Cypriot president Nicos Anastasides, center, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after their meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus, January 28, 2016.
AP

Overshadowed by the ongoing soap opera otherwise known as the police investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two interesting defense related visits took place on Wednesday, one in Athens and the other in Tel Aviv.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was hosted for the first time by his Greek counterpart, while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman hosted the Greek defense minister in Israel. These meetings followed a major improvement in military ties between Israel and Greece and Cyprus. They were preceded, only last year, by visits to Greece by both Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, the visits by the Greek and Cypriot chiefs of staff in Israel, visits by commanders of Israel’s navy and ground forces in Greece, and what seems even more important: frequent joint military exercises. IDF commandos trained in Cyprus while air force planes train very frequently in the skies over Greece and Cyprus.

In the 1990s, Israel viewed Turkey as its strategic ally in the region. This romance gradually faded with the political rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has an infinitely greater ideological identification with the Palestinians, and in particular with Hamas.

For a few moments, after the official reconciliation imposed by former U.S. President Barack Obama on the two countries in the wake of the Marmara affair, it might have seemed that a renewed warming of ties between Ankara and Jerusalem was possible. But these hopes were quickly proven wrong and Israel continued to look to the west, to Greece and Cyprus, as its closest partners in the region.

This is the potential Netanyahu sees, his regional vision: On one side the Greek alliance and on the other the strengthening of ties with the neighboring Sunni nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. In both cases Netanyahu is counting on the world’s declining interest in the Palestinian problem. The partners are making due with lip service over the occupation, but it is more important to them to receive things from Israel.

Natalie Levin

Egypt is the best example of this. Last month the New York Times reported details about dozens of aerial attacks conducted by Israel in the Sinai Peninsula against the local branch of ISIS, Wilayat Sinai, in an attempt to aid the Egyptians. This week Gili Cohen reported on the new public broadcasting corporation’s Kan news that Egypt, with Israel’s approval and in violation of the security annex to the peace agreement between the two countries, doubled the number of its soldiers deployed in the Sinai as part of their military operation against ISIS. Now Egypt has no less than 88 battalions and 42,000 soldiers in the Sinai – numbers that highlight the exceptional high level of trust between the leaders of Egypt and Israel.

In its military ties with Greece and Cyprus, Israel now enjoys the possibility of training under conditions it is unable to find close to home (mountain ranges for commando forces, long flights and dealing with Russian-manufactured antiaircraft systems for the air force).

At the same time that its Sunni partners are facing declared enemies – Iran on one side and the Sunni jihadist groups ISIS and Al-Qaida on the other – rival Turkey is not mentioned explicitly in the relations with Greece and Cyprus. But the Greeks’ worries about Turkish aggression and Erdogan’s aspirations for regional superiority are always roosting in the background, alongside the possible directions for cooperation with Israel on natural gas. Given these improving ties, the military aspect provides an important, complementary component for to the joint strategic interests.

Defensive Syrian fire at Israeli attack planes

The report on Fox News on Wednesday was certainly taken as a warning in Iran and Syria. Fox showed satellite photos of what it called a new Iranian military base being built near Damascus. Because the last time a foreign media outlet, in that case the BBC, reported the existence of a similar base it was attacked a few weeks later. One can assume this is a similar signal.

Since the day of the battle in the skies of northern Israel on Saturday morning, February 10, no reports have come out of Syria about additional aerial attacks attributed to Israel.

This week the air force completed its internal investigation into the downing of the Israeli F-16 by a Syrian anti-aircraft battery. The main failure was attributed to the plane’s crew, who did not carry out the necessary maneuvers to evade the anti-aircraft missile after they received the warning of missiles being fired at the plane, because they were so focused on firing the Israeli missiles at their target deep inside Syria: The Iranian command van for the drone sent into Israel earlier was shot down by an Israeli helicopter over the Beit She’an Valley.

Senior Israeli officials said the air force’s operations – a response to the violation of Israeli sovereignty and to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon – will continue as normal, while drawing the necessary conclusions as to the nature of the activities. But it is likely that the air force did not deal only with the actions of the crew of the F-16 that was shot down, but with the entire operation and the question of whether this was a case of “complacency in the war between the wars.”

The war between the wars is the term for what the IDF is conducting mostly against the arming of Hezbollah. The small danger to the air force was demonstrated in hundreds of previous operations in which its planes returned to base without any damage, and certainly contributed to a certain feeling of invincibility. But over the last year something has changed: In a number of attacks relatively heavy anti-aircraft fire was directed at the planes.

It was actually the rather unhelpful phrasing used by a senior air force officer, who spoke about “Syrian chutzpah” in firing the anti-aircraft missiles (which was in fact defensive fire at planes that attacked Syria), exposed a bit of the Israeli attitude: The skies are ours, the threat is minimal and woe to those who try to harm us.

In any case, it seems the path to a collision between Iran and Israel over the Iranian entrenchment in Syria remains as it was and the two sides are preparing for the possibility of another round. The Syrian civil war has entered a new stage. But it is actually the success of the Assad regime and its supporters that is now creating other problems because of the growing involvement of other countries, including Israel, in what is happening in Syria.

As the former head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, described it this week, what happens in Syria no longer stays in Syria. Every incident that involves foreign forces on the ground in Syria or in its skies has broader implications in the wider circle around it – and sometimes even on the superpowers.