Huge defense deal with Greece not only about security equipment - analysis

While Israel may have lost considerable yardage in the fallout with Turkey, it was able to make up much of that ground by developing stronger relations with Ankara's rivals.

A Greek national flag flutters as people visit a beach, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Athens, Greece, April 28, 2020. (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A Greek national flag flutters as people visit a beach, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Athens, Greece, April 28, 2020.
In the early 2000s, as Israel was facing severe water shortages, all kinds of ideas were raised to help solve the problem, the most creative being to import water from Turkey.
And in early 2004, after negotiations that lasted for some four years, Jerusalem and Ankara – in the very early days of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reign – signed a deal for Israel to import a billion cubic meters of water from Turkey’s Manavgat River.
Among the methods suggested for transporting the water were: linking giant rubber balloons together and towing them to Ashkelon, pumping water into converted oil tankers, or building a pipeline.
Even though importing the water was much more expensive than other options on the table – such as desalination – then prime minister Ariel Sharon told his cabinet that this arrangement would cement the important strategic ties that had developed with Turkey. Then finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted against the plan, citing its expense.
In the end the deal did not materialize and the strategic relationship with Turkey did not outlast the decade. But a key principle behind the proposal lived on: the more intertwined Israel’s relationship is with its friends, the better.
That principle was in evidence this week when Israel and Greece announced they would sign a 20-year defense agreement worth almost $1.7 billion that includes an Israeli flight school for the Hellenic Air Force and 10 M-346 trainer aircraft.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Yair Kulas, the director of the Defense Ministry’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate, was right when he said that “this is not just a defense export agreement, but rather a partnership for at least 20 years.” In other words, this deal adds another layer to the already flourishing  Israeli-Greek relationship and almost institutionalizes those ties.
And though it is doubtful that this was its primary goal, the deal also sends a message to Greece’s adversary Turkey – which has been signaling its interest  recently in restoring more healthy relations with Israel – that regardless of  how Turkish-Israeli relations may develop, the Israeli-Greek alliance, in fact the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot alliance, is here to stay.
When Erdogan questioned the foundations of the relationship soon after his election in 2002, and then sent it into a tailspin with the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010, Israel lost a key ally in the region.
But rather than mourning the loss, Jerusalem quickly began developing strong ties with Turkey’s historic adversaries, of which there are many: Greece and Cyprus for starters, and  also the Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Romania.
While Israel may have lost considerable yardage in the fallout with Turkey, it was able to retrieve much ground by developing stronger relations with those countries, especially with Greece and Cyprus. An anti-Turkish axis also started to coalesce in the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. And another key country in this axis, even though it does not sit on the Mediterranean, is the United Arab Emirates.
Israel’s ties with Greece began to take off in 2010, even before the Mavi Marmara incident, as Greece – facing an unprecedented debt crisis – was looking for friends. A chance meeting in Moscow between Netanyahu and then Greek prime minister George Papandreou led to the first visit shortly thereafter by a Greek premier to Israel in three decades, followed three weeks later by a reciprocal visit from Netanyahu, the first ever by an Israeli premier to Greece, a country which into the early 2000s was considered among the most hostile in the EU.
If a key impetus to the Israeli-Greek rapprochement began with the Greek financial crisis, it was turbo-charged by the Mavi Marmara incident.  This did two things, it sent Israel in search of new friends in the region, and dispelled Greek suspicions that Israel was too close to Turkey. And the relationship took off, with Greece supplying firefighters to battle the Carmel forest fire in December 2010, and Netanyahu using his connections to lobby for financial support for Greece.
One of the things lost following downgraded ties with Turkey was the ability of the IAF to train in Turkish airspace. Instead, Israeli pilots started flying practice missions over Greece.
What is most significant is that relations have survived three government changes in Athens. Papandreou was a center-left prime minister, succeeded by Alexis Tsipras who was further to his left, who was in turn replaced by Kyriakos Mitsotakis from the center-Right.
While one strong anchor to the relationship is a planned pipeline to deliver Israeli and Cypriot natural gas through Greece to Italy and further north into Europe, this latest deal is important because it adds another dimension to the relationship. If for any number of reasons the pipeline plan does not get off the ground, it is important that the relationship has other pillars on which to anchor relations as it faces potential storms down the road.