Early Friday morning, fire-fighting planes and firefighters began pouring in
from countries around the world, answering Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s
call for help in fighting the largest forest fire it had ever known. Only hours
before, the blaze claimed the lives of more than 40 people, most of them Prisons
Service employees in a bus that got trapped in the flames.
arrivals were toy-like yellow planes, sent from Greece. They flew low over the
Mediterranean, scooping up seawater. Then they moved inland, pouring the water
over the flames.
Impressed by the speed of Athens’s response Netanyahu
told reporters he “knew that the Greeks were our friends, but I didn’t realize
what good friends they were.”
He then phoned Prime Minister George
Papandreou to thank him personally. These planes – later dwarfed by the Russian
Ilyushin and the American Boeing Supertanker – were immensely useful because in
the time it takes to fill up the belly of one of the massive ones, they can make
The tragedy allowed the Greeks to prove that friendship
is tested most in times of need. And prove it they did.
has been cultivated at high gear over the last year, prompted by Papandreou’s
change of attitude compared to previous Greek governments. It also reflects a
close personal friendship that started casually when the two prime ministers
dined at a Moscow restaurant in February.
Papandreou met Netanyahu when
the financial crisis his country is still recovering from was at its media
height. Greece was the bad boy of Europe. It needed to regain its prestige, and
it needed to do it fast. And in the world of international politics, nothing
does that better than putting one’s name on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,
advancing them, starting them, restarting or resetting them – get the Jews and
the Arabs to talk peace and the world will applaud.
Truth be told, Athens
has a good starting point.
Unlike Western EU members or the US , it has a
lot of street-cred in the Arab world, cultivated over many years and consecutive
pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli governments.
And while Arab countries tend
to be careful and calculating when forming alliances with non- Muslim countries,
Israel happily welcomes new or strengthened alliances, especially in the
The past year has seen an extraordinary flowering
of ties, a love affair of sorts. The PASOK-led government of Papandreou is
certainly friendlier than previous Greek administrations, but Israel also had a
good reason to improve relations, namely the rapidly deteriorated ties with
The flotilla incident on May 31 worsened an already weakened
relationship with Ankara, whose leadership, weary of obstacles the EU poses on
its path to membership, seemed to deliberately downgrade ties with Israel and
move eastward. Whether this was a calculated move meant to make the EU welcome
it into the club for fear of “losing Ankara to the Arabs’” or a genuine
ideological position of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government remains to be seen;
regardless, the country was an ally of Israel for years and ties were strong in
both defense in commerce not so long ago.
It is reported that IAF jets
flew through Turkish airspace en route to bomb a fledgling Syrian nuclear
reactor three years ago, and the air force held regular training sorties in
Turkish skies, often side by side with Turkish pilots. Ankara no longer allows
Israel relies on air power for its defense and lacks the
necessary airspace for training. The invitation to use Greek skies was therefore
But both Greece and Israel have much more in
mind than defense cooperation; Athens would love to see commercial ties develop
on both a private and national scale, and looks admiringly at Israel’s
achievements in satellite technology, agriculture and desalination (a hot issue
on the agenda of a country also experiencing the woes of global
And while Israeli businessmen may be wary of investing in
Greece, the country would welcome a flow of foreign capital – including shekels
– into its tourism industry and in other fields.
Papandreou visited in
late July. Netanyahu visited Greece less than a month afterward. Since then the
top tier of the Greek Foreign Ministry, including Minister Dimitris Droutsas,
his deputy Dimitrios Dollis and the secretary-general Ioannis Zeppos, visited in
October. Other visits included Tourism and Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos
and the police chief Eleftherios Ekononou.
Following Netanyahu’s visit,
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Political and Security Bureau at the
Defense Ministry, visited Greece in early October, followed later that month by
Minister Bennie Begin and in early November by Deputy Defense Minister Matan
Vilna’i. Greek Minister of National Defense Evangelos Venizelos has an
outstanding invitation from his counterpart Ehud Barak.
Greek government initiated a series of meetings with high-ranking officials for
a group of Israeli journalists to showcase the high gear bilateral ties have
entered. In two separate discussions, Papandreou and Droutsas elucidated in what
fields the new cooperation between Athens and Jerusalem can help both countries
and the region.
Papandreou admitted that Turkey’s behavior served as a
catalyst for the rise in ties but emphasized that, for the benefit of the whole
region, Greece would be pleased to see Israel’s relations with Ankara
“I think we have seen a potential which is there and which was
not positively exploited in our relationship,” he said. “It does happen that
this took place now, with your difficult relationship with Turkey. We need to
create, and I think this is Israel’s point of view, a wider understanding in the
region of cooperation...
tensions, whether they be from one side or
another, or a third country, are generally counterproductive. I would see it
positively that Turkey and Israel get their relationship back on
Papandreou even tried, unsuccessfully, to bring Netanyahu and
Erdogan together to hold a tripartite meeting. The three were meant to meet on
the sidelines of a summit of the Mediterranean Initiative on Climate Change held
in Athens on October 22, but Turkey canceled its participation.
Papandreou and Droutsas said Greece’s policy toward Israel was perhaps
influenced by Turkey but certainly not dependent on what eventually transpires
between Jerusalem and Ankara. Droutsas assessed that Israel’s focus on ties with
Turkey before relations deteriorated may have stood in the way of strengthening
ties with Greece, a move, according to him, begun in 1999, the last time PASOK
held the reins.
“In the past, in the time span 1999 to 2004, we didn’t
see these spectacular, if you like to call them that, results – why? Because at
that time, Israel was much more focused on its relations with Turkey. I think
this is a fact,” Droutsas said.
“But I’m going to be very clear on that
we do not pursue and we are not exercising this policy vis-à-vis Israel and the
strengthening of relations because of Turkey. It is for us a strategic approach.
It’s a strategic relationship we are developing with Israel, but this is not to
be interpreted as a tool against Turkey. We don’t see ourselves as a replacement
for Turkey, and I don’t think Israel sees Greece as a replacement for
Momentarily ignoring the Turkish thorn in Greece’s own side –
the occupation of northern Cyprus – Droutsas even went as far as hinting at a
future tripartite cooperation.
“Imagine: You have three very important
countries of the region, cooperating closely together. At least in theory, this
seems to be the right recipe for stability in the region,” he said.
THEN, of course, Greece has its eyes on a place in the list of mediators between
Israel and the Palestinians.
Before Papandreou’s government came to
power, Jerusalem had absorbed criticism from many Greek governments and was wary
of the Greeks’ friendliness to its enemies. In parliament there is a room with
memorabilia from previous prime ministers.
The glass cabinet dedicated to
Papandreou’s father Andrea shows the man photographed with Muslim leaders, a
who’s who list of Israel’s enemies, including former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat
and Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi.
Papandreou junior wants to leverage
those historical ties for Israel’s – and Greece’s – benefit.
good relations [to the Arab world] we want to see how we can facilitate a strong
move toward peace and cooperation... [During my recent visit to Israel,] I also
went to Ramallah and talked to the leadership there. Anything you think we can
do or, and I said this to the leaders of the region, anything we can help with,
we’ll be glad to do so,” he said.
He said Greece had an interest in
seeing the peace process progress since “the Middle East problem started as an
issue between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but it is also taking on a
religious dimension now which is much more dangerous and, I would say, much more
Papandreou mentioned his country’s history to explain
why Greece may be more sensitive to Israel’s dilemmas. “We live in a region
which has lived through splits and wars and ethnic strife, in the Balkans for
example, in Cyprus.... so we know what conflict is. We know the difficulties,
but we also know the positive side when we get beyond these problems. From our
experience, we’re not coming into this from a sense of lack of understanding
what conflicts mean.
And we don’t come with a magical solution,” he
Droutsas characterized Greece’s ties with the Arab world as
“long-standing relations of mutual respect and confidence. This is something I
do not deny; I don’t want to deny it, it is important and good.” He said he felt
those ties were “Greece’s added value for this goal we are talking about,
creating peace and stability in the region.”
He rejected outright the
notion that strengthening ties with Israel is a zero sum game vis-à-vis the
“In our approach, this kind of thinking – you are either with one
or the other, if you look more to one side, you abandon the other side – is not
the right one.
“Strengthening relations for Israel, becoming, for Israel,
an entrusted partner, a collocutor – this is for us the key word. Greece is a
member of the EU, let us not forget this. The EU can play an important role for
the whole region. Greece is the member state of the EU which is [geographically]
closest to the region; we have more understanding of what is going on. This is
why feel we are also better accepted by the actors in the region as a
In late September, Syria became the 129th country to
recognize the territory Greece refers to as the former Yugoslav republic of
Macedonia by its official name, the Republic of Macedonia. Greece rejects the
name, fearing it implies territorial pretensions toward its northern province of
the same name. In his mid-October tour of the region, Droutsas also visited
Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon; Syria was left off the itinerary.
minister admitted that Greece’s improving ties with Israel affect its
traditional Arab allies, as the diplomatic jab of Syria recognizing Macedonia
“I would not be very credible if I said those who have
problems with [our ties with Israel] accept it without saying anything. Of
course we can see, we can hear that some [in the Arab world] are looking into
what’s going on very carefully, they’re asking themselves where this can lead
But he rejected the notion that Greece may reevaluate relations if
Arab countries make their ties conditional on severing ties with
“We will put all our efforts into avoiding anybody placing any
kind of ultimatum...
but I think it would not be wise or serious for me
to talk about such theoretical scenarios,” he said.
Even more than
Papandreou, Droutsas emphasized Greece’s potential to assist in the peace
process, but was very careful to avoid making statements that could be perceived
as patronizing or imposing.
“We as Greece certainly know our – let me use
this word – our limits. We want to contribute; we don’t want to impose. I’m a
If we wanted to impose something, I’m not sure whether we would
be able to. We also don’t want to create the image that some other EU partners
are creating, that the EU is coming now and is offering all its wisdom. I have
made this very clear in all my talks during my recent visit to the region, to
our Israeli friends, to our Arab friends, that this is not the role we are
envisaging for Greece. We are not coming and saying, well, better you do this
and do that.
“I know Israel is very sensitive about that.
talks I got the impression that Israel thinks it is not very wise to have too
many cooks in the kitchen and I know that this goes especially for the EU.
Again, our attitude is: The EU can help, it can be constructive, but I fully
take the point, nobody should try to impose.
“Why do I dare to think that
I can sound convincing about this? Because Greece has its own problems with
Turkey, we have the Cyprus issue. We know what Greece’s approach to Cyprus issue
is. Let the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots decide freely, without
pressure, without artificial timetables, blah blah blah blah – let them decide
freely about their future. This is what we strongly believe. Help is always
necessary, it is valuable, but it should be help and assistance, it should not
This is why we think that we sound convincing when we say
this, because we have our experiences with this, of others trying to be helpful
by imposing things.”
Droutsas said that during his visit here he was
educated on the subtleties of the peace process and that his new understanding
can be useful in getting the two sides back to the table.
“I will say
this openly: There is not much of an understanding in the international
community and certainly within the EU about the position that Israel is
expressing during this time. This is a fact. We understand much better the
internal situation in Israel, regarding for instance the issue of the
settlements. I understand out of these talks that this is an issue of high
political sensitivity in Israel, so we have to take this into
“We are in a position to convey those sensitivities also
to our other collocutors in the EU and yes, also to the Arab world. If you see
[the issue of the settlement freeze] just as an outsider, then the Palestinian
position sounds logical. But when you look a little bit deeper, into the Israeli
soul if you want, then it is a deeper problem.”
He added that this did
not mean Israel had a Greek carte blanche of support and that Athens would
automatically back every Israeli decision.
“If Israel or if the
Palestinians can make convincingly the point, they will also get the support of
the international community.
So if Israel has a point vis-à-vis the
Palestinians, Greece will not hesitate to say, ‘Yes, Israel is right.’ But if we
see that the contrary is the truth, Greece will also not have a problem to tell
its partner Israel, ‘Let us sit down and let us talk openly: There is a problem
in the position you are taking.’” CAN GREECE then make progress where so many
others failed? It offers Israel its love, but avoids what US officials somewhat
euphemistically refer to as “tough love.”
And it certainly has years of
dealing with Arab leaders who are traditionally suspicious of the Americans, the
Obama administration’s declarations of evenhandedness notwithstanding. Not a
sure bet then, but it’s always nice to make new friends. As the Carmel fire
underlined, you never know when – or why – you might most need them.
Keinon contributed to this report.