Athens and Jerusalem are ancient cultural rivals.
While the Greeks of old viewed nature as inherently perfect, celebrated the body and embraced polytheism, the Jews sought tikkun olam, emphasized the spiritual over the physical and adhered to strict monotheism.
Even after the creation of the modern State of Israel, ties between the Greeks and the Jews of Zion were strained. In the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion’s “Peripheral Policy,” which aimed, as historian Benny Morris pointed out recently in The National Interest, “to reach out to and forge alliances with the region’s non-Arab or non- Islamic states and groups, including Iran and Turkey, and the Druse of Syria, the Kurds of Iraq, the Christians and animists of southern Sudan, and the Maronites of Lebanon,” skipped the Greeks.
Greece was the only European democracy to have voted with the Arabs in 1947 against the UN General Assembly partition resolution, which endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state (and a Palestinian one).
Relations remained cold even after the ouster of Nazi collaborator
George Papadopoulos’s military junta in 1974 and remained that way for
over a decade. Shortly after being elected prime minister in 1981,
Andreas Papandreou, father of the present Greek Prime Minister Georgios
Papandreou, cultivated close ties with PLO chief Yasser Arafat as part
of a larger policy of “Tritokosmikos” (Thirdworldism).
Papandreou the father had hoped that his pro-Palestinian policies would
bring in Arab investments, protect oil interests and strengthen Greece’s
standing with Muslims vis-a-vis secular Turkey. The gradual warming of
relations with Israel began in 1990 under then-prime minister
Constantine Mitsotakis’s “New Democracy” government, which ended a
decade of tense relations with the US and, as an extension with Israel.
In that year Greece became the last European Community member to form
full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
In recent years there has been a dramatic upgrade in the ties between
Israel and Greece. A month after Papandreou was voted in as prime
minister, Greece abstained during the November 2009 UN vote on the
Goldstone Report, a stance that once would have been unthinkable.
Papandreou visited Israel in July of last year, the first Greek premier
to do so since Mitsotakis. Just three weeks later, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu spent a few days cruising the Greek islands with
Papandreou. It was obvious that special chemistry had developed between
the two prime ministers, both of whom speak flawless American English
(Papandreou was born in St. Paul, Minnesota).
Since then there have been a number of high-level visits.
The Israel and Hellenic air forces have trained together and Israel has
offered Greece military supply deals with generous financing terms. In
February, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations held its annual meeting in Athens, and Israeli tourism to
Greece has boomed.
Most recently, Athens was instrumental in preventing anti-Israel
activists from setting sail from Greek ports to challenge the blockade
of Hamas-controlled Gaza, including the forced blocking of US ship The Audacity of Hope
and the arrest of several activists.
The enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend-syndrome has something to do with the warming of relations. Even before last May’s Mavi Marmara
debacle, Turkey’s public patronage of Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist
organization bent on the destruction of Israel, and Ankara’s close ties
with Syria and Iran, placed the Ankara in direct conflict with
Jerusalem, opening the way for relations between Israel and Greece –
which has been in conflict with Turkey since it gained independence from
the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.
Greece’s severe financial crisis is another factor. Desperate for the
international community’s financial support and perhaps slightly
overestimating world Jewry’s power and influence, the Greeks are hoping
that improved relations with Israel and the American Jewish community
will further their economic interests.
Diaspora Jewry is viewed by the Greeks as being critically influential
in international finance and potential investors in their foundering
economy. The prospects of Israel turning in the coming decade into a
major natural gas exporter, following the recent discovery of vast
natural gas fields of the coast, is another attraction for Greece.
Warming relations between Israel and Greece, while hardly a substitute
for Turkey’s crucial influence on regional stability, is nonetheless a
positive development that should be pursued and nurtured. Greek
President Karolos Papoulias’s two-day visit to Israel that began Sunday
evening is yet another positive sign that the historic tensions between
Jerusalem and Athens are eminently bridgeable – and that doing so is