The strong core of the relationship between Israel and Greece will remain, even as the rhetorical and symbolic atmosphere surrounding the ties may be less positive under new far-left Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a Greek specialist on Hellenic-Israel ties said on Wednesday.
Aristotle Tziampiris, who was in Israel to attend a symposium on the Greek-Israeli relationship at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center, defined the “core” of the relationship as tourism, military/security cooperation, business deals and energy.
“The core relationship will continue, amid an agreement to disagree on the Palestinian issue,” he said.
He pointed out that Tsipras’s Syriza party had formed a coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks, whose leader, Panos Kammenos, is defense minister and has made clear he wants the strong Israeli-Greek relationship to continue.
Tsipras’s election caused some initial concern in Jerusalem regarding his far-left roots and the problematic statements he and other party members have made against Israel in the past.
But Tsipras is pragmatic, Tziampiris said, adding that with all Greece’s economic troubles and its tensions with the EU, Greece “wants more friendships, and wants to deepen the ones that exist,” not weaken them.
The Israeli-Greek relationship is based on clearly defined common interests that have not changed with the change of government, he asserted.
Tziampiris, who teaches international relations at the University of Piraeus and has just published a book entitled The Emergence of Israeli-Greek Cooperation, said that when looking at the relationship, one must ask three questions: why ties began to flourish in 2009 after 60 years of a relationship that varied from bad to not very good; in what areas the ties flourished; and what happens next.
To understand why the relationship took off, he said, it is necessary to look “at the big picture.”
In 2009, when the tone and tenor of the ties began to change, Greece was going through the financial crisis from which it has yet to recover fully. And while this was taking place and Greece’s star seemed to be falling, the fortunes of its main rival – Turkey – were on the rise.
As a result, he said, Greece was in need of finding new friends, and an opening with Israel became a serious option as Israel’s ties with Turkey deteriorated, culminating in a break in ties over the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.
It was no coincidence, he said, that Greece’s then-prime minister, George Papandreou, made his first visit to Israel in July 2010 – barely a month after the Mavi Marmara fiasco – and Netanyahu reciprocated with a visit to Athens the next month.
While Netanyahu and Papandreou developed good chemistry during a chance meeting at Moscow’s Cafe Pushkin in early 2010, it was the geopolitical conditions – Greece’s financial strain and the Israeli-Turkish tension – that led to a major breakthrough.
The relationship, Tziampiris said, immediately helped both countries and was evident in five ways: • Greece sent immediate and significant assistance to Israel in December 2010 to fight the Carmel Forest fire.
• Greece prevented the launch of a second Gaza flotilla from its ports in 2011.
• The number of Israeli tourists to Greece has risen from some 20,000-30,000 a year to 400,000-500,000 – not an insignificant number in a country facing deep financial problems.
• The quality and quantity of Israeli-Greek military cooperation has increased enormously, with Israel training in Greek air space, and IAF planes flying over Greece instead of over Turkey (where they are now barred). Last summer, Israel sent a military attaché to its embassy in Athens, an indication of an upgrade in security ties.
• There are discussions under way with Greece and Cyprus about cooperating on an “energy triangle” in the eastern Mediterranean. Though no decisions have been made on a deal that would include natural gas extraction and liquefaction, only a vastly improved political relationship could enable such a discussion in the first place.
Tziampiris said that the improved relationship with Israel did not come at the expense of a strong Greek relationship with the Palestinians or with the Arab world. In fact, Greece voted for the inclusion of the Palestinian Authority in UNESCO in 2011, and a year later voted to give the Palestinians non-member observer- state status in the UN General Assembly.
Although Israel was not “thrilled with these moves,” Tziampiris said this would help ensure the continuity of the relationship under the new government, since it showed that it was possible for Athens to support the Palestinians politically but still have strong, mutually beneficial ties with Israel.