Greece Can Embrace Israel Without 'Betraying' the Palestinians

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Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (C), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shake hands after meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus, to discuss strengthening cooperation, January 28, 2016.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (C), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shake hands after meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus, to discuss strengthening cCredit: AP

In a recent opinion piece in Haaretz, former Palestinian foreign minister and negotiator Nabil Sha’ath voiced his concerns over Greece’s left-wing government abandoning the Palestinian cause and their struggle for self-determination.

Sha’ath expressed anxiety that common economic and geopolitical interests might bring about a bilateral rapprochement between Greece and Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. And while there is no doubt that tightening its relations with Israel might serve to temper Greece’s once boisterous pronouncements in support of Palestine, it should be borne in mind that this support had, and always will have, its limits. One should judge it by its practical contours and not by its rhetoric.

In the 1980’s, social democrat Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou pursued a headstrong course of collision with his partners at European fora, at times even stifling the formulation of a common European policy vis-à-vis the Israel/Palestine conflict. The previous Karamanlis government had already cemented important trade agreements with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq Papandreou had a spectrum of reasons for his pro-Arab stance: the calls for nonalignment by a powerful faction within his own PASOK party, the need to woo Arab support for Greece against Turkey over the Cypriot and Aegean issues and the expectation that a pro-Arab policy would attract Arab investments. Papandreou was also quick to grant the PLO diplomatic status upon taking office in 1981. He also maintained close relations with secular Arab states (Libya, Jordan, Syria).

But in bedeviled Greece, its dictatorial struggles recent and still taking baby steps towards political and psychological stabilization, this was a time of innocence where even the greatest contradictions could be overlooked by all those who adopted wishful thinking. Thus, Papandreou might have been a staunch Palestinian ally, often placing this criticism in an anti-imperialist context, but he was no enemy to the Americans and the West; pre-election pledges for withdrawal from the EEC and NATO were quickly scrapped and ties with the West renewed. And despite its self-professed willingness to act as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Greece had minimum-if any say in any Eastern Mediterranean conflicts. And in Papandreou’s second term (1985-1989), a friendlier attitude toward Israel was adopted (mainly) as a result of pressures exerted by the then-EEC to upgrade its diplomatic ties with Israel.

Fast forward to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ term, beginning in January 2015. Greece finds itself in a chokehold exerted by its so-called European “partners”. Where it has attempted to pursue some degree of independence, such as in accepting and humanely treating refugees, it has been castigated by Europeans for its fiscal and economic inefficiency, has been threatened with expulsion from the Schengen Area and villified as recalcitrant.

And all this with reference to an issue where Greece had very little alternative: The Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 explicitly forbids states from returning people fleeing their countries for fear of persecution. Turkey, on the other hand, has been turning a blind eye to smuggling networks, has so far done very little to stem the flow of refugees departing its shores daily and has played political games with refugees on its soil (not to mention its notable contribution to the exacerbation of the war in Syria.) Instead of an acknowledgement of its role, it has received little more than a slap on the wrist. To add insult to injury, it has demanded a sum bigger than the €3 billion agreed last November (even though no one yet knows how the money will be spent) and has berated the EU for its annual Turkey Progress Report.

Greece thus currently finds itself pressed between a hostile European environment unappreciative of its economic reform efforts and its treatment of refugees, and a dangerous situation to the east. Its relationship with Israel is a pleasant break from these pressures, as the alliance can be both of economic and strategic benefit.

But both the economic and strategic scenarios face important obstacles. If Israel’s supplying of newly discovered natural gas has been the magic password for its improved relations with Greece, the energy issue isn’t simple, not least in terms of how it plays into the parallel configuration of Israel’s relations with Greece’s arch-enemy Turkey.  A pipeline through Turkey to transport its gas into Europe would be a much less costly project, for Israel and everyone involved, than one passing through the rough geomorphology of Cypriot and Greek waters. As recently stated at a Cypriot-Greek-Israeli summit in Nicosia, the pipeline rapprochement is not exclusive and Turkey could be invited to join eventually. Strategically, a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement looks more in the offing than it has been since the breakdown in relations following the Gaza flotilla in 2010. And it’s evident that Greece can hardly be a strategic substitute for Turkey, from an Israeli viewpoint.

In our region of rapidly-shifting alliances, baffled Greece is welcoming any positive signals coming from any direction. Does this make it right in trying to tone down language on the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as happened in a recent Council of the European Union meeting? Absolutely not. As with other things, Tsipras’ greatest mistake is not the reality of his transition from the cosy armchair of the opposition to the harsh reality of government; it’s the superbly clumsy way in which he carries out that transition, his subterfuge and prevarication often reaching unfathomable heights; it’s quite a stark contradiction to call for making one’s relations with Israel contingent on the latter’s treatment of the Palestinians and then forging a military deal with a closeness that Israel only enjoys with the U.S.

Regardless of the plausibility of the idea, Greece under Tsipras has continued to posture as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. What it should be flexible enough to do is keep a principled stance on issues where moral judgements are called for (settlements, two-state solution, East Jerusalem) while going through with policies that can prove beneficial for both itself and its neighbors.

The former is by default easy to do, as the country’s positions have long been identical to those of the EU (and the international) consensus. The latter is predicated on its keenness to propose ideas that might seem enticing to the EU, which on Israel/Palestine has been playing second fiddle to the U.S. But halting energy or military cooperation, as called for by some, will hardly make a point to Israel, will most likely backfire (as the Tsipras government will once more look unable to manage its relations with its partners) and will be of little benefit to the Palestinians themselves.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos is a freelance journalist writing on the Eastern Mediterranean. He holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh, UK.