A role for Greece

The emerging informal Israeli-Greek alliance has the potential to bring Israel closer to Europe and act as a source of regional stability.

By A. TZIAMPIRIS
February 8, 2011 22:28
3 minute read.
Visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Athens, Greece.

Netanyahu Greece. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom)

Without a doubt, recent developments in the Middle East have had a negative impact on Israel’s security. The popular uprising in Egypt casts doubt on all existing arrangements, while its outcome remains unknown; it could well end up producing another hostile Islamic country. At the same time, Hizbullah has strengthened its grip on Lebanon, relations with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey keep deteriorating, Iran appears steadfast on its path to acquire nuclear weapons and Hamas is entrenched in Gaza.

Within this framework of uncertainty, insecurity and danger, the emerging informal Israeli-Greek alliance has the potential to bring Israel closer to Europe and act as a source of regional stability.

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OVER THE past few months, and following Binyamin Netanyahu’s historic visit to Greece last August (the first by an Israeli prime minister), cooperation between the two countries has been broad and multifaceted. It covers the realms of defense (joint air force exercises), culture, tourism (a 200 percent rise in Israelis visiting Greece) and economics (with several projects being discussed in fields such as agrotechnology and energy).

Also noteworthy is the mission that Athens underwrote during the recent Carmel wildfires. It included a 70-member rescue operation comprised of crewmen, pilots, firefighters and several planes. A bilateral cabinet meeting is to be convened this spring in Israel announcing several major new projects.

This rapprochement enjoys broad bipartisan support in Greece, and hence is essentially administration-proof (a qualitative difference from the Turkish-Israeli alliance of the 1990s, which was opposed by the Islamists from the beginning).

In addition to mutually beneficial aspects, this new alliance can contribute to regional stability in a series of concrete ways.

First, by continuing to maintain excellent relations with the Arab and Muslim peoples of the Middle East, Athens can contribute to the maximum extent possible (for a country of Greece’s size) toward alleviating regional conflicts and facilitating peace efforts.

Prime Minister George Papandreou’s attempts to visit Cairo during the uprising offers an example of the kind of action that could take place.

Second, Greece can help ease tensions between Turkey and Israel. This may sound surprising, but we should keep in mind that Athens maintains good relations with Ankara, and fervently supports the country’s European perspective. The elimination of all strained regional relations is ultimately in its best interest.

Third, there is the huge Leviathan natural gas field. The construction of an undersea pipeline possibly connecting Leviathan to Cyprus and Crete is apparently being discussed.

Such a development could be a game changer. It would certainly alter Israel’s position vis-a-vis Europe, and lessen the continent’s energy dependence on Russia (especially significant now, since the Nabucco gas pipeline project appears problematic).

In addition, it is not necessarily farfetched to envision a network of pipelines bringing together Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt (if it stabilizes in a responsible fashion), a future Palestinian state (if there is gas in its putative territorial waters) and Iran (if there is ever a regime change there).

FOR THE time being, such long-term projects hinge on solidifying Israeli-Greek relations, as well as on several key actions. For example, Greece should declare its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and reach an agreement with Cyprus on their mutual EEZs. By doing so, the Leviathan pipeline project will be propelled forward.

Furthermore, Greece and Israel have to get to know each other in a much better way. Frequent visits by journalists, politicians, diplomats and youth groups are now necessary. Understanding can be deepened through the contribution of think tanks and academics, perhaps on an institutionalized basis; and businesspeople should be at the forefront of significant cooperative ventures.

Finally, Athens can create a legal framework allowing Israeli citizens who can prove descent from Greek Jews who survived the Holocaust to claim Greek (and hence EU) citizenship (a precedent exists for Greeks from former Soviet republics).

Such an inclusive gesture would probably solidify cooperation among the two peoples for at least a generation.

An informal Israeli-Greek alliance deserves to be better understood and fully supported.

The writer is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus. The views expressed in this article are his own.


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