Israel is hedging between Ankara and Athens

BEHIND THE LINES: Hard choices face Israel in accelerated relationships with Turkey and Greece.

 A GENERAL view shows the facilities of DESFA liquefied natural gas terminal, on the islet of Revithoussa, Greece. (photo credit: Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister’s Office/via Reuters)
A GENERAL view shows the facilities of DESFA liquefied natural gas terminal, on the islet of Revithoussa, Greece.
(photo credit: Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister’s Office/via Reuters)

In speeches given at a recent joint forum in Athens, Greek and Cypriot leaders sounded optimistic regarding the depth and the direction of their countries’ relations with Israel. The forum, organized by the B’nai B’rith World Center and the Institute of International Relations, brought together scholars, commentators and current and former senior officials from all three countries. 

In his remarks at the conference, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias lauded the “flourishing” trilateral cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. Notably, Dendias placed progress in this arena alongside other diplomatic advances, referring to “schemes of cooperation with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but also with Bahrain and with Kuwait.”

Former Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides also spoke in glowing terms of the advances in relations in recent years. Christodoulides, who is set to stand for the presidency of Cyprus in upcoming elections, noted the role of gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean as underpinning the improvement in relations. 

The former foreign minister asserted that “hydrocarbons can have in the context of our region, the same impact and effect as coal and steel had for Europe after the Second World War,” noting that “Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, UAE (and even Lebanon, despite the multitude of problems it is facing) have come together and formed such cooperation mechanisms, founded on a positive and inclusive agenda.” Christodoulides also recalled that as Cypriot foreign minister, he visited Israel eight times. 

“Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, UAE (and even Lebanon, despite the multitude of problems it is facing) have come together and formed such cooperation mechanisms, founded on a positive and inclusive agenda.”

Nikos Christodoulides

Statements and events of this kind reflect a remarkable change that has indeed transpired in Israel’s relations with Greece and Cyprus over the last decade. In the 1980s, Greece pioneered the diplomatic recognition of the PLO by Europe, and granted the movement full diplomatic status in Greece. Then Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou famously hosted PLO leader Yasir Arafat in Greece, following the movement’s expulsion from Lebanon in 1982. Athens only afforded Israel de jure recognition in 1990. Greek dependence on oil imports from the Gulf undergirded Athens’s unsympathetic stance. 

Israel, Greece sign their largest defense procurement agreement, April 18 2021  (credit: GREEK DEFENSE MINISTRY)Israel, Greece sign their largest defense procurement agreement, April 18 2021 (credit: GREEK DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Things have changed.

Israel today is part of a de facto alliance that includes also the main countries of the Gulf. Similarly, over the last decade, cooperation between Israel, Greece and Cyprus has steadily increased. Interestingly, Papandreou’s son, George, was instrumental in the improvement in relations. As prime minister, the younger Papandreou conducted an official visit to Israel in 2010, which constituted a significant landmark in the growing cooperation between Athens and Jerusalem over the subsequent decade. 

As Lord Palmerston observed, nations do not have permanent friends, or permanent enemies – only permanent interests.

WHAT ARE the main factors underlying the Israel-Greece-Cyprus honeymoon of the last decade? There are two central and related elements. The first is the discovery of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean. The second is mutual suspicion of Turkey. 

Regarding the first issue, the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean is a matter of strategic importance, enabling Israel to become an energy exporter. There is a natural and obvious common interest among beneficiaries of these discoveries to cooperate in the export of gas to European markets. The need, now more apparent than ever, to decouple Europe from its dependence on Russian gas strengthens the incentive for cooperation. 

The flagship project in this regard was the planned EastMed gas pipeline, which had been intended to connect Israeli and Cypriot gas fields in the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy, from where liquefied natural gas would have been shipped to European countries. The US withdrew its support from this project in January of this year, casting its future into doubt. 

But whether or not the pipeline is ever laid, trilateral projects related to natural gas are set to continue. Broader joint infrastructural projects have resulted from the improved ties. Israel, Greece and Cyprus have agreed to link their electricity grids, through the construction of an underwater power cable beneath the Mediterranean, known as the Euro-Asia interconnector. This project is due to be completed by 2024. 

Regarding the second element, Greek-Turkish enmity is deep, of long-standing, and apparently nowhere close to resolution. Turkey is currently engaged in an effort to rebuild relations with Israel and with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Regarding Athens, though, sharp differences regarding the Cyprus question, the rightful allocation of economic zones in the waters of the Mediterranean, and disputes surrounding Greek military activity in the Aegean Sea have ensured that no thaw looks imminent. Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan, against the background of tensions in these areas, declared on May 2022 that current Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “no longer exists” for him. 

Problems with Turkey have helped to bring Jerusalem and Athens together, and the Turkish challenge has underlain the sharp increase in cooperation in the security sector. In April 2021, a $1.68 billion contract was signed for Elbit Systems to build a fighter aircraft simulation training center for the Hellenic Air Force. This was the latest and largest in a series of major contracts linking Israeli companies with the Greek security sector. A recent article in Forbes revealed that Greece has acquired the Drone Dome system, produced by the Israeli company Rafael, for defense against Turkish drones which regularly fly over the Greek islands, monitoring Greek naval activity. 

ISRAEL’S RELATIONS with Turkey have been at a nadir over the last decade. Erdogan’s support for and domiciling of Hamas, and his backing of Sunni political Islam more generally, precipitated a sharp decline in relations. It is noteworthy that George Papandreou’s visit to Israel in 2010 came shortly after the Mavi Marmara incident, in which a number of Turkish Islamist activists were killed by Israeli security forces. 

This enmity helped to deepen and underscore Jerusalem’s move toward Athens. The background may now, however, be shifting. Erdogan’s government is currently engaged in a concerted effort at improving relations with Jerusalem. The period when Islamist revolutions looked imminent across the Arab world appears to have passed. 

The Turkish leader is facing elections next year, against a background of 79% inflation and a generally dire economic situation. He is evidently keen to reset relations. Israel, it seems, is cautiously receptive. President Yitzhak Herzog’s state visit to Turkey in March was an indication of Israel’s similar interest in restoring ties. 

Here, a dilemma may be observed. Herzog visited Greece prior to his Turkey trip, evidently to calm concerns in Athens regarding Israel-Turkey rapprochement. The president’s diplomatic skills notwithstanding, he is unlikely to have fully succeeded in this mission. Greek-Turkey relations are a zero-sum game, and are likely to remain so

It is difficult to see how the continued deepening alliance with Greece and Cyprus would be able to coexist with a sharp turn back toward a close relationship with Turkey, the main and bitter adversary of Athens and Nicosia. Turkey sees itself as the natural conduit for east Mediterranean gas on the way to Europe. Much of the incentive for Greece and Cyprus to move closer to Israel was precisely to cooperate in this area. 

Hedging between Ankara and Athens is likely to prove impracticable. The Turkish president’s volatile record, the deep-rooted Islamist outlook that has informed his politics throughout, and the continued domiciling and activities of Hamas on Turkish soil will presumably feature in Israeli considerations. Inertia, tactical improvisation, or an attempt as the Hebrew phrase has it to “dance at all the weddings” are unlikely to prove effective. Hard choices lie ahead for Israel.