Shortly after prime minister George Papandreou was forced to step down last week
because of Greece’s economic crisis, Israel’s ambassador to Athens Aryeh Mekel
sent a cable (made known to The Jerusalem Post) to the Foreign Ministry saying
Jerusalem’s challenge would now be to “continue Papandreouism without
What Mekel was referring to, and what those in the ministry
dealing with Athens are currently focusing on, is to ensure that the dramatic
turnaround in Israeli-Greek ties ushered in by Papandreou does not follow the
former prime minister out the door.
Papandreou shepherded in what could
fairly be called a “golden age” in Israeli-Greek ties. Starting when he met
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by chance at a restaurant in Moscow in early
2010, the two leaders clicked. Both spent formative years during their
youth in the US and went to college there (Papandreou was born in St. Paul,
Minnesota and studied at Amherst, and Netanyahu spent many years in Philadelphia
and studied at MIT), both speak American English and both have a decidedly
US-tilted foreign policy orientation.
Despite these similarities, this
“click” was not a given, inasmuch as being pro- Israeli was not exactly in
Papandreou's blood-line. His father, Andreas, served as prime minister of Greece
twice (1981-1989 and 1993-1996) and was known for his pro-Palestinian, anti-
Israel leanings. Indeed, it took until 1992 for Greece – which chartered a
pro-Arab foreign policy and was long considered the harshest of Israel’s critics
in Europe – to even formally establish ties with Israel.
personal relationship between the two leaders came at a fortuitous time. It came
when Israeli- Turkish ties were already in a tailspin and Jerusalem was looking
for other allies in southern Europe to counterbalance Turkey.
came as Greece was looking to raise its diplomatic profile and attempt to be
seen as a significant player in the region to help convince the international
community to give it the economic assistance it sought. Furthermore, it came as
Athens was keen on making inroads into the US Jewish community to both attract
investors and win favor in Washington. The dramatic uptick in Greek-Israeli ties
proved once again that old adage that in the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy
is my friend.”
Papandreou was one of the world leaders Netanyahu was
closest with, and the relationship the two forged paid dividends for both
countries. In the past two years, Athens has gone from one of the countries in
Europe that were most critical of Israel, to one of the most supportive.
Bilateral ties have flourished; trade is on the upswing; military ties are close
(this week the Hellenic Air Force trained with the Israel Air Force in the
Negev); bilateral ministerial visits are abundant; political cooperation is very
close; and tourism to Greece is way up, as Israelis are avoiding
When the Mount Carmel Forest fire struck last December, it was
the Greeks who first answered Netanyahu’s call for assistance and dispatched fire-fighting
planes that, according to Israeli officials, put out some two-thirds of the
blaze. Netanyahu, for his part, has lobbied European leaders repeatedly
over the past year to assist Greece economically, and Israel – to show its
support – even extended a $100 million line of credit in September to Israeli
businesses investing or trading with Greece.
Most important, it was the
Greeks who put the kibosh on efforts in June to send a flotilla of some 15 ships
to try and break the blockade of Gaza. Athens simply foiled the plans by barring
the vessels from setting sail from Greek ports.
So when Papandreou
stepped down last week, the question being asked in Jerusalem was, indeed,
whether “Papandreouism” – that new Greek spirit toward Israel – would continue
under the transitional government.
Israeli and Greek officials and
academics alike are confident it will, saying that while a good personal
chemistry between Papandreou and Netanyahu oiled the relationship, it was the
interests of both countries that propelled it forward.
interest between the two countries is very strong,” said Netanyahu’s spokesman
Mark Regev. ‘These mutual interests are strong enough to keep the bilateral ties
at the same level.”
Regev, who said the relationship between the leaders
was “especially close” and that the two men spoke often by phone about a wide
array of issues, added that while there was no doubt their friendship was
important in pushing forward the bilateral relationship, “now that the cork is
open, the wine is flowing and we believe it will continue to do
Mekel, in a phone conversation from Athens, said the last year was
an “unprecedentedly good year” in ties and the “best year ever for relations”
between the two countries.
Mekel said much credit goes to the Greek
government and Papandreou who initiated the moves with Netanyahu. But, he said,
“the ties go beyond that and are ties between the governments’ leaders and the
Ticking off the name of one Greek minister after the next who
has visited Israel over the last year, Mekel said Greek public opinion supports
the improved relationship and that the Greek media has been very
Papandreou, in a speech to parliament before he stepped down,
termed the improved relationship with Israel one of his best achievements and
called for it to be maintained.
Moreover, reading the writing on the
wall, Israel cultivated ties over the last year with other members of
Papandreou’s PASOK party as well as with the members of the opposition New
Democracy party. These two parties, together with a small extreme right-wing
party, now make up the transitional government under Lucas
That government won an overwhelming vote in the Greek
parliament on Wednesday, with 255 of the deputies voting confidence in
Papademos, an economist who will focus on implementing the EUimposed austerity
The transitional government is backed by Papandreou’s PASOK party, which
commands a majority in the 300-seat parliament, the main opposition conservative New
Democracy party and the far-Right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS).
therein lies the rub. LAOS leader, Georgios Karatzaferis has made comments in
the past denying the Holocaust, and newly appointed government minister of
infrastructure, transport and networks, Makis Vorids, has questioned whether the
infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
was in fact an authentic
document. Jewish organizations such as the Anti- Defamation League and
American Jewish Committee have called for Papademos to distance himself from the
anti-Semitism of the party’s leaders.
Israeli officials suggested that
the Greek government took this party into the coalition because it was trying to
have as wide an appeal on the street as possible. Only the country’s Communist
Party and the Coalition of the Radical Left refused to join the transitional
The officials said that most of the former PASOK ministers
and deputy ministers will remain at their posts and that the New Democrat
ministers who will take over at the defense ministry and foreign ministry are
supportive of Athens’ pro-Israel orientation.
LAOS will have one minister
in the government, two deputy ministers and two alternate ministers – not
considered in Israel a strong enough presence to change the pro-Israel
That LAOS will play a minor role was echoed by Evangelos
Venetis, a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign
Policy, an Athens-based think tank.
Venetis, who specializes in the
Middle East, said that Karatzaferis is a “pragmatic and clever” politician who
has supported the Greek-Israeli rapprochement because he agrees that these ties
are in Greece’s interests. LAOS, Venetis said, will not throw a spanner in the
Greek envoy to Tel Aviv Kyriakos Loukakis said “anti-Semitism
always has and always will be condemned by the Greek governments because it is
condemned by the Greek society. Anti-Semitism is completely alien to the history
and values of the Greek people.”
The Greek ambassador, pointing out that
new Foreign Minister Stavros Dimas told the parliament that enhancing relations
with Israel was a strategic choice for the government and complimented the
country's “multifaceted policy in the region,” said he was “certain
Israeli-Greek ties and cooperation in all fields will continue to flourish”
under the Papademos government.
Venetis agreed, explaining that on a
strategic level, Greece “wants a partner in the region who can actually help the
Greece and Cyprus defense environment with Turkey. Israel, for Greece, is a key
partner – the only partner in the eastern Mediterranean – vis-a-vis
He said Athens wanted close collaboration with Israel for energy
and defense reasons, as well as for security issues regarding
According to Venetis, while Papandreou’s role in the future
government was still unclear, he was likely to have a behind-thescenes role –
along with the new foreign minister – in preserving and promoting ties with
Israel, especially since the transitional prime minister would be focused almost
exclusively on economics until the next election in three months.
is indeed what emerges, then there will be smiles in Jerusalem, since a backroom
foreign policy role for Papandreouism is good news for Israel.