Tsipras Comes to Jerusalem: Israel and Greece’s Ambivalent Relationship

There's nothing the European left so dislikes as Israel, and the Jewish state fares particularly poorly in the popular, Hellenic imagination. So what's bringing the leftist Greek prime minister and Netanyahu ever closer?

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

On January 27, a rather strange meeting will take place in Jerusalem between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting is ostensibly to discuss energy issues, but will in reality look at wider areas of possible cooperation between Greece and Israel. 

I say the meeting is strange because Greek attitudes toward Israel are at best ambivalent. In a country soaked in the ideology of anti-Americanism and ‘anti-imperialism’ (to which one can add a well-known taste for conspiracy theories) the Jewish state does not tend to fare particularly well in the popular, Hellenic imagination. 

This fact is lodged in my mind for many reasons but mainly because of the annual 17 November commemorations. Every year on this day large numbers of Greeks march through Athens in remembrance of the 1973 popular uprising that eventually overthrew the country’s military Junta. If you’re young and full of wayward energy it’s a great day out. You get to bring traffic to a standstill as the march snakes through the city’s main roads before finishing up outside the U.S. Embassy where - in continuing retaliation for Washington’s past support of the junta - you can hurl an imaginatively impressive variety of missiles into the walled compound beyond 

I watched this sight a few years ago and amidst all the sloganeering against austerity measures, the EU, Germany and anyone else thought to be causing Greeks misery, one chant stood out. "Free, Free Palestine!" screamed the crowd of largely young, left-wing Greeks. What Palestine had to do with the country's history of military dictatorship or its gripes with EU fiscal policy was lost on me. Nonetheless, there it was, being bellowed into the heavens with gusto - clearly the issue was something of a fixation for Greece’s hard left. 

All of which makes the recent diplomacy between Greece and Israel seem somewhat surprising. In January of last year, Greece elected Tsipras’ Syriza party, the most left-wing government in country’s history. It duly set about trying to overthrow the European financial order by promising to end austerity while simultaneously making moves toward anti-EU states like Russia.

There is nothing the European left so dislikes as Israel, but as Tsipras was fighting the EU he was also talking to Jerusalem. And on 25 November 2015, he finally flew there to meet with Netanyahu. The stated reason for the meeting was energy issues. In recent years Israel has discovered several major offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean containing trillions of cubic feet worth of gas, and is now keen to explore ways that it can transport it via Cyprus and then to Greece and into Europe. A move like this is of clear financial benefit to both Israel and a cash-strapped Greece. But of more interest was the rhetoric surrounding the meeting and the wider issues that were discussed. 

Both sides were at pains to declare that, beyond energy issues, they sought ways to strengthen overall ties between the two countries, with Tsipras even urging that moves for closer relations  “be put into practice, not justremain an exercise on paper.” 

And he seemed to mean it. A day after the meeting his foreign minister Nikos Kotzia informed Netanyahu that Greece would defy EU guidelines on labeling goods made in Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders. I must confess I thought of those marching youths, Tspiras’ base – and of how they would react - when I heard the news. 

That the leader of a party like Syriza could do this (just after meeting with Netanyahu, no less) without drawing too much fire from his own members or the country at large is illustrative of the fact that Tsipras may be on the left but he recognizes that Greece, which came close to financial collapse last year, is facing exceptional times, and in exceptional times the national interest must prevail.

The longer Tsipras has remained in power the more pragmatic he has become. He tried to take on the Eurozone and when he realized it was impossible he backed down. He appears to have internalized the most valuable lesson that any politician – especially one on the hard left – can learn: if you want to govern effectively (or at all) compromise is preferable to ideological rigidity. 

Put simply: Tsipras is smart enough to see that there are genuine benefits to working with Israel – and in this he is continuing a trend that started some years ago in Greece. Athens has long identified Israel as a key strategic partner in areas like defense and energy. Greece allows the Israeli airforce to train over its skies and in return gets to work with a vastly superior military and benefit from its intelligence sharing. Then there is the issue of tourism – Greece’s major source of income. According to Netanyahu, Israeli tourism to Greece has grown sevenfold over the past few years and Athens is keen to see it increase even more. Even Yiannis Boutaris, the Mayor of Thessaloniki is eager to encourage Israelis to visit his city, which was once such a thriving centre of Jewish life. 

Israel does remain ideologically ‘difficult’ for many Greeks, but as Dimitar Bechev, a Visiting fellow at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University, notes, Greek public opinion is often more flexible than people credit. Certainly, the fact that Tsipras U-turned on almost all his initial promises but was still comfortably re-elected indicates that Greeks can forgive when they think it is in their interests to do so.

As well as the benefits of direct cooperation, improved ties also give the country leverage as regards Turkey – a potent motivator for any Greek leader, wherever he lies on the political spectrum. If an energy deal is made involving Cyprus, the minutia of the agreement - how the respective Greek and Turkish communities on the island will share the profits and parcel up the respective rights etc. – will be critical, and need both Turkish and Cypriot involvement. If Israel can help mediate what will be a fractious (and inevitably bitter) process, then all the better.

Even the improving relations between Israel and Turkey are not necessarily a bad thing for Greece. As Bechev observes, “Greek-Turkish relations are not zero-sum - thankfully. Israel can be friends with both.” The likelihood that the three countries may yet become de facto partners in the energy arena as well as the need to make progress on the issue of Cyprus more generally indicates that there is enough at stake - politically and economically - for all parties to put aside their various grievances, in this area at least. 

The talks scheduled for this week will - official sources say - center on bilateral cooperation in the areas of defense, energy, tourism and innovation. Beyond direct financial assistance, there are few areas of more importance to Athens right now. Alexis Tsipras, once Greece’s most radical Prime Minister, understands this reality and is now poised to break with the longstanding anti-Israeli orthodoxy of the European left to take full advantage of what Israel has to offer. 

David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State. He is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast, Poynter Fellow at Yale University and an Associate Fellow at the School of Iranian Studies, University of St Andrews. Follow him on Twitter: @dpatrikarakos