A new Mediterranean friendship amid regional instability
The once frosty relationship between Israel and Greece has blossomed into a new partnership dedicated to boosting security ties, as the region is plagued by new threats.
By YAAKOV LAPPINUpdated: MAY 12, 2016 21:38
Israel and Greece have in recent years upgraded bilateral diplomatic and defense relations to a significant degree, creating a new Mediterranean alliance that developed quickly following Turkey’s plunge into Islamism.Now, with reports surfacing periodically of a thaw in Israeli-Turkish relations, the partnership with Greece, carefully built up over the past six years, faces a new test.The new friendship with Greece has flourished under various, often ideologically opposed, governments that have risen and fallen in Athens, which was once traditionally unfriendly to Israel. The partnership appears to be immune to political changes in Athens or Jerusalem, driven by national interests and shared concerns over regional developments.In April 2015, the Israel Air Force held a large-scale training exercise in Greece for its combat and transport helicopters, enabling aircrews to gain valuable flight experience in mountainous terrain. Such training helps the IAF prepare for a range of missions, including potential long-range operations.It came weeks after the IAF sent fighter jet squadrons to fly with the Hellenic Air Force.Israeli pilots encountered new terrain, and practiced, with Greek pilots, hiding their aircraft in the mountains – training that would be difficult to pull off in Israel, a mostly flat country.IDF commanders hailed the cooperation with Greece, while Greek Larisa Air Base Commander, Col. Dormitis Stephzanki said at the time that cooperation “contributes to the safeguarding of security of both countries.”AdvertisementHe hailed the “common language we created,” adding, “I believe that training at the base and under the terrain conditions that exist here strengthened the Israeli air force and its ability to fly in any place they will be required to fight.”A few months later, Greek helicopters and fighter jets arrived in southern Israel for training.In February this year, Greece’s Defense Minister Panos Kammenos came to Israel to speak at a conference held at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, and his remarks provided indications of some of the forces that drove his country to upgrade relations with Israel.Kammenos blasted Turkey’s regional conduct, which he described as being driven by “Ottoman revisionist and hegemonic ambitions,” accusing Ankara of acting in ways that are “far from being friendly, far from being in accordance with international law, and far from being stabilizing” in the region.Ankara’s conduct toward Greece is “creating friction in the Aegean in Southeastern Europe,” he said.He accused Turkey of “deliberately” moving hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to “European soil.”“It is still maintaining illegally occupying forces in Cyprus, and hinders the progress of negotiations on the island. It tries to block exploration of natural resources in the Mediterranean,” Kammenos said.“You in Israel know very well how Turkey behaved in December 2012 and January 2013 when the Republic of Cyprus announced the discovery of hydrocarbons [nearby in the Mediterranean Sea]. You also know about its behavior toward your country, its support for anti-Israeli organizations, and its fomenting of anti-Semitic feeling, its indiscretion in sensitive areas, and maximal demands in order to normalize relations with Israel,” he added.“TURKEY’S OTTOMAN ambitions extend from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the southern Mediterranean shore,” the Greek defense minister said.Greece is very concerned by the prospect of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, he added.Turning his attention to the Iranian nuclear deal, Kammenos said a failure to fully implement the deal could have an impact on whether Turkey eventually goes nuclear.In July 2015, Israel and Greece signed a status-of-forces accord that offers legal protection to members of both militaries while training in the other country. Kammenos visited his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, where the accord was signed.Israel had only ever signed a similar accord with the US.Ya’alon said then: “We wish the Greek people and Greece itself success in its effort to overcome the economic challenge [it faces]. We pray for that since we believe Greece is a very important country, with a history and a contribution to the history of humanity.”Ya’alon paid tribute to joint training between the IDF and Greek military within Greece, adding that the countries have shared interests, and both are dealing with the impact of the Iran nuclear deal.Few people are as familiar with the process that drew Jerusalem and Athens close as Israel’s ambassador to Greece from 2010 to 2014, Arye Mekel.Mekel also served as deputy ambassador to the UN, and held a series of senior diplomatic roles,. He told The Jerusalem Post by phone in April about how the new relationship began.“I was there just at the right time,” Mekel said. “I’d like to think that my actions contributed to this.”Prior to 2010, relations had “not been good for many years,” Mekel said, citing Greek socialist governments that were “very friendly towards [Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat” and the Palestinians in general, viewing Israel as an extension of the US.Greece was unfriendly to Israel in the EU, forming a diplomatic adversary along with Portugal, Ireland and Spain.“The change started in 2010, in a surprising way. It came from the socialist [former prime minister George] Papandreou, who is the son of an anti-Israeli prime minister [Andreas Papandreou],” who sent Greek ships to Beirut in 1982 to facilitate the rescue of Arafat from the hands of the IDF.Born in the US, the Harvard-educated Papandreou did not share a traditional hostility to the US, Mekel said. He cited a chance 2010 meeting between the Greek premier and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow. “They sat down for a long dinner in Café Pushkin.Papandreou proposed upgrading relations with Israel, and Netanyahu acquiesced,” Mekel recalled.In June 2010, the agreement went into effect, and Mekel personally accompanied the Greek prime minister on an official state visit to Israel. In August of the same year, Netanyahu reciprocated with a visit to Greece. “He wanted to strike while the iron was hot,” Mekel said.Until then, Greek governments saw Israel as a “proxy of the US, and the US was hated there for many years,” Mekel said. “Papandreou changed this. His personality was more American, different from many other [former leaders],” Mekel added. “But more importantly, Greece was in the midst of a severe economic crisis. Things were not looking good. He had a dream, to turn Greece into a broader, more important player globally, or at least, in the eastern Mediterranean.He wanted to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if the peace process was renewed.”In December 2010, Greece immediately complied with an Israeli request to send firefighting planes to help Israel deal with the Carmel fire disaster.Mekel, acting on Netanyahu’s orders, got Papandreou out of a meeting with the Polish prime minister in Warsaw to facilitate the assistance.In that same year, Turkey had broken off relations with Israel, following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which nine Turkish citizens were killed as they tried to break the naval blockade on Gaza. Turkey banned IAF planes from flying over its territory – a ban that is still in effect, Mekel said. “We needed an immediate ability to fly over Greece, en route to Europe and the US.[Today], there is someone in our embassy in Greece whose job it is to coordinate these flights,” Mekel said.Attributing the new friendship to the crisis with Turkey is both “true and untrue,” Mekel argued. “I think Papandreou used that development as an excuse to explain the change to the Greek people, telling them: Now that Israel is not friends with Turkey, we can enter,” he said. “The Greek people accepted this. They saw it as a good reason. But there were also practical reasons.Our people whom I spoke to lost faith in the Turks. There was a need for a new partner we could share secrets with.Greece is not a military power like Turkey.On the other hand, this is a NATO member, with a military that is not bad, and a good navy. It is an ancient seafaring nation, with a very large airspace, almost 20 times larger than own. Suddenly, the opportunity arose. Within a short time, air forces started training together over Greece and the Negev,” Mekel said.Israeli pilots were pleasantly surprised by the capabilities of their Greek counterparts, he said.By 2011, Israel had a new friend in the Mediterranean. In that same year, 15 sea vessels that were supposed to head to Gaza from Greek ports found themselves blocked by Greek security forces.“Of course, Israel did not want another flotilla. We started intensive activities with Greece, which occurred at the level of prime ministers and downwards, and involved daily work by me and the embassy. We worked with the Greek coast guard, chief of staff and navy. They prevented the flotilla from heading out.This was very important for us militarily and politically, and it was the proof that Greece was going beyond talking, that it was willing to act,” he recalled.Mekel later accompanied former Israel Navy chief V-.Adm. Eliezer Merom to Greece to thank the country for its assistance.Greek special forces had boarded would-be flotilla boats and arrested sailors, carrying out actions in a manner that was highly unusual for that country.“When I saw the special forces with helmets and submachine guns arresting the sailors, I could not believe it. In Greece, one does not see such things often.”In 2012, a new Conservative government headed by prime minister Antonis Samaras took charge, and good relations continued. “It was not obvious he would continue the policy. In 2011, when he was in the opposition, I saw which way the wind was blowing. I sent him to Israel in December 2011, and requested a red-carpet reception. When he rose to power, not only did relations continue, he even upgraded and enhanced them. Military cooperation grew and became substantial between the two navies,” Mekel said. Israeli missile ships arrived for a 10-day training run off Greek islands.The air forces also stepped up a gear and began joint training. “Flights over Greece are very important. Israeli pilots know every centimeter of Israel. They can fly from Dan to Eilat in an F-16 in under 20 minutes. There is a major need for young pilots to fly in unfamiliar places. Greece supplies this. Flights over Greek islands are suitable places to train new pilots,” he said.“Things improved strategically and militarily, the point where in the summer of 2014 we appointed, for the first time, a military attaché to Athens. Until then, I was in touch with their defense minister and chief of staff. Then, Israel canceled the position of the defense attaché in Switzerland, who had until then covered the region. The IDF sent a colonel, who is still there, to Athens.”In January 2015, a new far-left government took power under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras. “We again were very concerned, because in the past he was very critical of Israel,” Mekel recalled.“But he surprised us very much.”Tsipras continued to improve security coordination with Israel, visiting the country twice himself, as did his defense minister, Kammenos.The enhanced ties also extend to Cyprus, which views Israel as a potential defender from Turkey, Mekel said. When Cyprus indicated its wish to explore natural gas in the Mediterranean with Israeli assistance, Turkey sent warships to the area. “There’s a rumor, which is not substantiated, that our warships also approached the area, hinting to the Turks to leave the Cypriots alone,” Mekel said. Turkey did in fact withdraw its ships.Now, with Israel and Turkey negotiating a resumption of normal relations, the Greeks are concerned, Mekel said.“Every time they hear that Israel and Turkey are about to close a deal, the Greeks, at the highest levels, start asking questions. Tsipras asked Netanyahu what this would mean for relations with Greece. The answer we give is that relations with Greece stand on two firm legs, and will not be harmed by an improvement with Turkey. Is this really true? Time will tell. They are very worried about it,” he said.The Israeli-Greek-Cypriot relationship has created a “new geo-political bloc, that at least theoretically can deal with Turkey, not militarily, but as a bloc with strategic significance,” Mekel said.Within the EU, Greece is leading the resistance to the directive of marking goods from the West Bank, Mekel noted.“Greece has a double voice in the EU, because of Cyprus. This is very important,” he added.In January of this year, the Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, reported on a meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus, between the leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus, in which they adopted a cooperation declaration, hailed by diplomatic officials in Jerusalem as nothing less than a “strategic alliance” in the eastern Mediterranean.“I believe this meeting has historic implications,” Netanyahu said. “The last time Greeks, Cypriots and Jews sat around a table and talked on a common framework was 2,000 years ago.”The joint declaration with Greece and Cyprus pledges closer cooperation in seven fields: energy, tourism, research and technology, environment, water management, anti-terrorism and migration, according to the report.“I think that from Israel’s perspective, there has always been an interest in better relations with Greece,” said Mark A. Heller, principal research associate at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.“Most of the movement came from the Greek side, which was previously hostile.A lot of what drove the old Greek position vis-à-vis Israel turned out to be no longer valid. What drove this mostly was competition with Turkey for Arab and Muslim goodwill. It became evident that this was not so forthcoming, and goodwill that did exist was not worth that much. At same time, a sharp deterioration occurred in Turkish-Israeli relations.The Greeks saw opportunity,” he said.“The Greeks were looking at a comprehensive spectrum of relations. The military dimension is one factor, and not an unimportant one. They thought Israel had a long-standing military and strategic relationship with Turkey, which seemed to be really jeopardized by the change in attitude by the Turkish government led by [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.The Greeks presumably assumed they could replace Turkey,” Heller said.“Any relationship is reciprocal, but not necessarily equivalent. Greece gets more out of it than Israel does,” he argued.“That does not mean there can’t be mutual benefit,” Heller said.Greece believes Israel has a significant influence on the US, a factor that grew in importance as Greece’s relationship with Europe came under growing strain, he added.“Israel is trying to replace its relationship with Turkey, to the extent that it can. It has gained access to air and naval training, and it is exchanging information.To be perfectly honest, I do not think Greece can ever be a replacement for Turkey’s size, military power, and strategic assets. But it is a lot better than nothing, and it is helpful for Israel to have a friend in the corridors of the EU,” Heller stated.He described an “overlapping convergence of interests,” in which “Cyprus, and by extension Greece, are concerned by what Turkey may or may not do in the maritime routes of the eastern Mediterranean and the natural gas issue, while Israel is concerned over what Hezbollah or Lebanon may or may not do in the same region. There are ongoing contingency plans, and an exchange of assessments.”Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, noted the decline of the US’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean as a factor in Greece’s decision to become more assertive.“On our side, we are looking for places to fly in and carry out maneuvers.Greece has two voices in the EU, and they are worried by Turkey’s activities in Syria and Libya. We also do not like this, and neither do the Egyptians.”Greece also has an S-300 surface-to-air battery that could prove useful in Israeli training missions for potential future strikes on the Iranian nuclear program.“Greece, because of all of its islands, has huge territory in the Mediterranean.Ninety percent of Israeli exports pass through the Mediterranean,” Inbar said.He added that the Greeks could also help “bring the Egyptians closer to us.They have historical relations with Egypt, and they do not want to be alone with us.”Ultimately, Inbar said, relations with Greece challenge notions that Israel is isolated. “Under three different governments… they have preserved relations.They need us more than we need them – this is clear. They are concerned by Turkey, which is causing problems, sending refugees into the EU. They are worried that Turkey might activate a jihadist cell in Cyprus. They need us.”Inbar said he was skeptical that Israeli-Turkish relations could really be mended, even if an agreement is reached. “There is no chance under Erdogan that we will reach the same level of relations with Ankara that existed in the 1990s. Talks are occurring, but I am not sure we will reach a diplomatic interest. We have an interest… but the Turks support Hamas, and it is not a close partner of the US. There is much suspicion on the Israeli side,” he added.Israel, Inbar said, “is not isolated. Many need us. The US exit from the region paradoxically created new partners for us.”