Flotilla diplomacy: Giving some credit where it’s due

Analysis: ‘Yediot Aharonot’ and ‘Yisrael Hayom’ worlds apart on the good news from Greece.

Flotilla support rally Gallery 465 4 (photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica)
Flotilla support rally Gallery 465 4
(photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica)
The clearest indication that Israel under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu scored a success Friday when the Greeks stopped the Gaza-bound flotilla from setting sail was to note the different ways the two largest circulation dailies in the country – Yisrael Hayom and Yediot Aharonot – played the story in Sunday’s editions.
In Yisrael Hayom, a paper unabashed in support of Netanyahu and owned by his billionaire supporter Sheldon Adelson, the story was the major item on page one – as well it should have been – under the headline: “The Greek commandoes raided, the captain was arrested, and the flotilla to Gaza was stuck: Thank you, Greece.”
Those images of Greek commandoes stopping the boat, and reports of a Greek minister prohibiting vessels from setting sail from his country’s ports to Gaza, didn’t just happen.
This was all preceded by weeks, even months, of intensive diplomatic activity ranging from work done on the ground in Athens by Israel’s envoy there, Aryeh Mekel, to conversations last week between Netanyahu and his Greek counterpart – a man Netanyahu frequently characterizes publicly as “my friend” – George Papandreou.
And the diplomatic success wasn’t limited to Greece. The diplomatic accomplishments vis-à-vis this flotilla include prodding UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to come out against the flotilla, getting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to voice strong disapproval, having countries such as Britain, France and the Netherlands issue unequivocal travel advisories against taking part, making it difficult for the vessels to get insurance and ensuring that the Turks kept the Mavi Marmara from setting sail again and did not appear – as they did last time – to be giving their sponsorship to the entire farce.
As Defense Minister Ehud Barak aptly said in the cabinet meeting on Sunday, “We see positive developments in connection to the flotilla, as the Greek, Cypriot and Turkish governments are working to restrain it. That is the result of comprehensive efforts from the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and us [the Defense Ministry].”
Israelis in general, and the Israeli media in particular, are quick to complain and to allocate blame. This is a country full of Monday morning quarterbacks who can be counted to pounce when things go wrong, as they too often do.
In contrast, when something works, it’s a different story. Had the Gaza flotilla reached Israel’s territorial waters, no matter what Israel would have done – and still may have to do in the future – it would likely have been skewered both by the international press, and by large segments of the Israeli media. That’s just the way things work.
But something went right this time around, and a good part of what went right had to do with the dramatically improved relations with Greece – relations that began their strong upward tick as a result of the steep slide in ties with Turkey: flesh and blood evidence of that old cliché that in the Middle East the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
After years of turning a cold, often very cold, shoulder to Israel, last year Greece – facing a huge financial crisis – decided to dramatically upgrade its ties with Israel.
The first practical benefit from the change in the relationship, beyond the exchange of high-level visits, was the rapidity with which Greece sent five planes here in December 2010 to help in putting out the Mount Carmel forest fire.
Though much was made of the Turkish planes that arrived, Greece was here first, with the largest contingent, and – according to some reports – put out about 2/3 of the fire.
The uptick in relations has also led to a significant upgrade in the countries’ military and strategic cooperation.
The Greeks have benefitted from the improvement in ties by getting between 400,000 and 500,000 Israeli tourists a year, mostly tourists who used to go to Turkey, Israeli assistance in economic projects and lobbying help in Washington by US Jewish groups.
In addition, Netanyahu – in his discussion with foreign leaders – lobbies for support for Greece’s economic recovery, a gesture not lost on the Greek leadership.
All of this was apparently lost on the flotilla organizers, who apparently did not take the increasingly close relationship between the two countries into account when planning this year’s voyage, thinking that Greece of July 2011 was the same as the Greece of May 2010, when the first flotilla took off, including a number of vessels from Greece ports.
But it isn’t the same country, as the riots in Athens last week that overshadowed the flotilla showed. And Greece’s relationship with Israel is definitely not the same, a fact making things much more difficult for the flotilla folks, and for which Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministry deserve credit.