Whither Greece-Israel relations?

Eight years after prime ministers George Papandreou and Benjamin Netanyahu took the first steps for opening a new chapter in Greek-Israeli relations, the bilateral partnership is stronger than ever

By
February 9, 2018 05:07
4 minute read.
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN inspects a guard of honour during a welcome ceremony in Athens in January.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN inspects a guard of honour during a welcome ceremony in Athens in January, 2018... (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Greece and Israel are slowly but steadily enhancing their strategic cooperation. Defense ties have been strengthened as a result of regularly organized bilateral military exercises.

Greece and Israel – with the participation of Cyprus – have agreed to maintain and broaden “an arc of security and prosperity” in the eastern Mediterranean.

Symbolically, during his recent visit to Greece, President Reuven Rivlin accompanied Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos to the Salamis Naval Base on the island of Salamina, near Athens. This was the first visit by a foreign president to the headquarters of the Greek naval fleet.

Israel also regularly joins NATO training exercises taking place in Greece. Last November, Israeli navy units participated in the Greek-led maritime exercise Niriis 2017, just off the coast of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea. One month later, Israel’s air force and navy drilled together with NATO forces in an international joint training exercise beginning on the shores of Haifa and spanning to the shores of Crete.

Moreover, common steps in the energy sector are in the interest of both Greece and Israel. The two countries and Cyprus have already agreed to develop an underwater cable that will link their electrical systems. The so-called EuroAsia Interconnector will create the electricity highway through which the EU might securely be supplied with electricity produced by gas reserves in Cyprus and Israel as well as from renewable energy sources. In parallel with electricity, the so-called EastMed natural gas pipeline is on the agenda of the three countries following relevant tripartite meetings. Despite its high cost, such a project will certainly contribute to security in the eastern Mediterranean as opposed to alternative solutions for gas transportation.

Harmonious trade collaboration goes hand in hand with the improvement of Greek-Israeli relations. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli imports from Greece in 2017 amounted to $322.6 million and its exports to $580.9m. This is a marked increase in comparison to 2016.

During that year, Israeli imports from Greece were worth $267.2m. and exports worth $348.5m. Furthermore, tourism is bringing the two countries closer. More than 500,000 Israeli tourists, for example, visited Greece last year.

From another perspective, it is noteworthy that the Greek-Israeli partnership – which began to flourish in 2010 – has been boosted despite the leftist ideological orientation of the Greek government.

The governing Syriza party belongs to the European family of United Left and Nordic Green Left, which has been critical of Israel on many occasions. When Syriza won the national election in January 2015, the international community was concerned whether the revolutionary rhetoric of its leader Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras could have a tangible effect on politics. Israel was one of the countries closely monitoring developments. When in the opposition, Tsipras had been a typical pro-Palestinian politician in a country that has supported the Palestinian cause for decades.


But as with many other issues – principally his July 2015 political turnaround vis-à-vis Greece’s creditors – Tsipras soon faced reality and abandoned utopian ideas. Visiting Jerusalem for the first time in November 2015, he publicly praised the strategic cooperation between Greece and Israel. Since then, he has been clearly a pragmatist in approaching the latter.

More important, combating antisemitism is a priority for his government. A few days ago, Tsipras and Rivlin planted two olive trees on the site of the future Holocaust museum to be constructed in Thessaloniki.

Rare acts of vandalism – such as that against a Thessaloniki Holocaust memorial by neo-Nazis – outline existing risks in Greek society.

The improvement of the Greek-Israeli relationship does not mean that Athens is openly supporting Jerusalem in international fora. In most foreign policy issues, Greek positions are naturally aligned with those of the EU. Greece did not support the US decision on Jerusalem last December at the UN level, and Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Kotzias said that this recognition could hardly contribute to peace. For its part, Syriza issued a statement expressing its “disagreement” and “intense concern” regarding the recognition and possible transfer of the US Embassy.

However, there are other cases where Athens has supported Jerusalem. It has, for instance, defied a European order on labeling settlement goods. And, in recent months, Greece has not joined other European countries that have been vocal in publicly accusing US President Donald Trump of decertifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, although it is seeking energy cooperation with Iran as a matter of principle.

Eight years after prime ministers George Papandreou and Benjamin Netanyahu took the first steps for opening a new chapter in Greek-Israeli relations, the bilateral partnership is stronger than ever
Eight years after prime ministers George Papandreou and Benjamin Netanyahu took the first steps for opening a new chapter in Greek-Israeli relations, the bilateral partnership is stronger than ever – even during the administration of a leftist Greek government. Critics who were persistently attributing this development to the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations have started to reconsider.

The author is a research associate at Bar- Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior associate and lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.

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