(photo credit:Amos Ben Gershom)
Can Greece replace Turkey as Israel’s foremost strategical ally in the Eastern
Mediterranean region? To a certain extent, yes, but not entirely.
Greeks can provide air space for Israeli warplanes to practice for long-range
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(Since the withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula three
decades ago, Israel’s minuscule size precluded such activity here.) They also
can increase their purchases of sophisticated military hardware made in Israel
and expand the sharing of sensitive intelligence data.
Greece already is
a choice alternative for Israeli tourists, 400,000 of whom used to fill Turkey’s
relatively low-cost and very comfortable resort hotels. It also offers ample
opportunities for shoppers out to buy for less and to sightseers bent on
exploring ancient sites like Athens’ Acropolis.
Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu had these considerations in mind when he embarked on his twoday
official visit to Athens this week. His trip, the first by an incumbent Israeli
prime minister, followed an inaugural visit to this country by his Greek
counterpart, George Papandreou, a month ago.
included a voyage aboard a Greek naval vessel made in Israel as well as meetings
with senior military and diplomatic aides as well as with Papandreou
However, Greece has several limitations of which Netanyahu
surely is aware.
Its population is substantially smaller than Turkey’s:
12 million compared to 63 million. Hence, its purchasing power is substantially
Historically, Greece has maintained a correct if not especially
cordial diplomatic relationship with Israel.
This is due to wide-ranging
trade links with the Arab states as well as an active left wing that supports
the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict. The two pro- or neo-communist
parties in Greece objected strenuously to Netanyahu’s arrival and managed to run
up Palestinian flags over the Parthenon in advance of the Israeli leader’s tour
On the other hand, the fact that the Greeks fought Nazi Germany
and suffered from its brief occupation while the Jews were the primary victims
also must be borne in mind as a coalescing factor. (Turkey, on the other hand,
was neutral until the very end of World War II.) Politically, Greece has much
less influence over the Arab states than Turkey.
Like them, Turkey is a
predominantly Muslim state, even though its constitution advocates secularism in
governmental as well as social affairs. Ankara’s ruling Islamic party, headed by
Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, even aspires to reassert the regional
hegemony enjoyed by the former Ottoman Empire, which ruled in Baghdad, Damascus,
Beirut, Jerusalem and Cairo – at least insofar as foreign policy is
However, the Greeks have several advantages. Their country is
a longtime member of the European Union, a multi-national body in which Israel
is vitally interested and which it would be happy to join if given the
opportunity. They also serve as discreet intermediaries for Israel’s
unpublicized exports to the Arab states.
There also is a profound Greek
religious interest and involvement in the Holy Land.
The Greek Orthodox
church is one of Israel’s major landowners. Its possessions include churches and
monasteries throughout the country (especially in Jerusalem, where its prelates
granted the prestate Zionists permission to build the attractive Rehavia
neighborhood on land adjacent to the Monastery of the Cross). And thousands of
Greek Orthodox pilgrims flock to Israel annually, especially for Christmas and
Easter on the dates designated by the Greek religious calendar.
an Israeli swing away from Turkey toward Greece – because of Erdogan’s hostile
rhetoric and behavior, especially since the May 31 seizure of a Gaza-bound
flotilla by the Israeli navy and the death of nine Turkish passengers on board
one of the ships – could backfire on Ankara.
It already has undermined
Turkey’s ability to act as a regional mediator (between Israel and Syria, for
example), prompted grave warnings from the US that military equipment sought by
the Turkish armed forces may be withheld and thrown Turkey out of step with the
international effort to deter Iran from expanding its nuclear development
Inevitably, Greece will act in its own best
And if these include the upgrading of military and business
links with Israel (whose burgeoning economy also could help Athens solve its
financial problems), so be it – unless Greek public opinion stands in the way.
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