Man set to unseat Greek prime minister is as pro-Israel as his predecessor

Polls indicate center-right Mitsotakis will defeat Tsipras in Sunday snap election.

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July 8, 2019 03:47
4 minute read.
Man set to unseat Greek prime minister is as pro-Israel as his predecessor

New Democracy conservative party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis waves at supporters after voting at a polling station, during the general election in Athens, Greece, July 7, 2019.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On June 11, 2018, Kyriakos Mitsotakis stood center stage at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum held in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center and said that “it is my personal commitment” to strengthen Israel-Greek ties in the future, “should the Greek people give me the opportunity of leading my people.”

On Sunday, according to the polls, the Greek people were poised to do just that as Mitsotakis, of the center-right New Democracy Party, is expected to defeat Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and form the next government. And this, said Arye Mekel, Israel’s ambassador to Greece from 2010 to 2014, is “very positive.”

Mekel, a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, was quick to point out that Tsipras was very good for Israel, and that when he took power in 2015 as the head of the radical-left Syriza Party, there were concerns that this would end a new golden era of ties between Israel and Greece that began in 2010 under Socialist leader George Papandreou.

“When Tsipras came to power, we thought that was the end of the ties because he was considered radical-left,” Mekel said. “But no, he upgraded them even further.” And if Mitsotakis wins Sunday’s election as expected, Mekel said he is likely to take the ties to even new heights.

Mitsotakis is the son of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, a former Greek prime minister who kept a campaign promise and established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1990.

“As obvious as that decision seems now, that was far from the case 28 years ago, because Greek public opinion at the time was staunchly pro-Arab and staunchly anti-Israel,” said Mitsotakis in his 2018 speech at the AJC ceremony, where the organization honored his father as a “heroic friend.” Mitsotakis added that his father “did what was right and what was right for the interest of his country.”

A month after recognizing Israel and establishing full diplomatic relations – Greece was the last of the European Common Market countries to do so – the elder Mitsotakis, who passed away in 2017, visited Israel. “Since then the relationship between Greece and Israel has grown progressively and steadily stronger on all fronts – political, economic, military, cultural, geopolitical,” Mitsotakis said in 2018. “I spent an hour with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu reconfirming the depth of our strategic relationship. And the strategic nature of the relationship between our two states has subsequently after 1990 been recognized by every Greek government. It is today supported by the majority of Greek parties, but most importantly, it is supported by the majority of the Greek people.”

Although the elder Mitsotakis established ties in 1990, they remained cold until 2010, when they suddenly took off under the Socialist leader Papandreou, who like Mitsotakis, was also the scion of a legendary Greek political family. Papandreou spearheaded a dramatic shift in Greece’s orientation toward Israel in a period of about two years, shifting Greece from one of Israel’s harshest critics in the EU to one of its staunchest supporters.

Mekel said that the turnaround in ties came about while Greece was in the midst of its financial crisis and looking for new friends. “They thought that Israel might be able to deliver with the US; maybe help with the Europeans and the International Monetary Fund.”

While Greece was on the decline at this period, its historic rival in Turkey was ascendant, and Athens was keen on finding new allies. An opening with Israel presented itself in May 2010, when the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident set Israeli-Turkish ties into a tailspin. Just a little over a month after the incident, Papandreou – whom Netanyahu met coincidentally in Moscow’s Cafe Pushkin earlier that year – made his first visit to Israel in July, and Netanyahu reciprocated with a visit to Athens the following month.

Mekel said that the financial crisis, more than Greece’s rivalry with Turkey, was the reason for Greece’s interest in better ties with Israel, but that the Mavi Marmara incident gave Papandreou the explanation he needed to provide his people for the sudden shift in relations.

Following this, Greece sent immediate and significant assistance to Israel in December 2010 to fight the Carmel Forest fire; prevented the launch of a second Gaza flotilla from its ports in 2011; significantly upgraded military cooperation with Israel; and began discussing an “energy triangle” in the eastern Mediterranean that would include Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

Those three countries have since formed an alliance, holding summits about every six months where a wide range of common interests are discussed, including the possibility of a natural gas pipeline from Israel and Cyprus to Italy through Greece. The Greek-Israeli ties continued to develop under Papandreou’s successor, Antonio Sampras of the New Democracy Party, and even further under Tsipras. Mekel said that over the last decade the countries’ ties have solidified, and that it is important to note that it happened under three different parties: the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), the New Democrats, and Syriza. Under Mitsotakis, Mekel said, this upward trajectory will surely continue.something


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