Big Fat Greek Wedding

Since its split with Turkey, Israel has been sending many more tourists to debt-ridden Greece. Still, what Greece did for Israel in the past couple of weeks could not have come without some real work in the trenches.

Greek warplanes 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Greek warplanes 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Did Greece go the extra mile for Israel by waiting until a critical mass of the Gaza-bound vessels had docked at Greek ports before closing its waters to the flotilla, thus leaving most of the boats stranded? According to this scenario, the icing on the cake came when at least two of the boats tried to make a break for open sea but were blocked and boarded by members of Greece’s coast guard – assault rifles, ski masks and all.

True or not, it’s more than clear that diplomatically, something quite profound has been going on.
“In past couple of years there was a real downgrade in relations with Turkey and an amazing upgrade in relations with Greece,” Amikam Nachmani, a specialist in Turkish, Greek and Cypriot affairs at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, tells The Jerusalem Report.” It’s not a strategic alliance – Greece can’t replace the relationship Israel had with Turkey. But both sides knew relations could be improved, and went ahead and did it.”
According to Nachmani, things weren’t always this way. Far from it, in fact.
“The Greeks were very aware of their diaspora in the Arab states, especially in Alexandria,” he says. “By the 1950s things were so bad that Israel was relating to Greece as a hostile state.” It wasn’t until 1990 that the two established formal diplomatic relations, at which point bilateral ties became what Nachmani calls “more normal.”
Yet there was room for improvement, and recent events in Greece apparently provided the opportunity.
“As everyone knows,” he continues, “the economic situation there is now very bad. The country is also undergoing an influx by Muslims – Kurds, Iraqis, Palestinians, Africans, and even Turks. Israel has long felt small, marginalized and threatened. This is how Greece now feels.”

Since its split with Turkey, Israel has been sending many more tourists to debt-ridden Greece. It’s also been providing military largesse in the form of equipment and training, in return getting Greek air space and waters for air force and naval drills. Still, what Greece did for Israel in the past couple of weeks could not have come without some real work in the trenches.

“[Israeli Ambassador to Greece] Aryeh Mekel is a very experienced and seasoned diplomat, and clearly knew what he was doing,” a former senior figure at the Foreign Ministry, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells The Report. “There is an entire range of issues, an entire range of levels for contacts – political, economic, cultural. They went about it at every level. There was a visit to Greece by [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and by the foreign minister [Avigdor Lieberman]. They both had businessmen accompany them. Maybe we should send over [the highly successful Bank of Israel governor] Stanley Fischer.”
Asked if any pressure on Israel’s part was involved in gaining Greece’s flotilla cooperation, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor chuckles, and then turns serious.
“Claims that we pressured Greece not to let the flotilla leave its ports or territorial waters are beyond ridiculous,” he tells The Report. “How can we possibly put pressure on Greece? The fact is that not one other nation in the region gave permission for a Gaza-bound flotilla to leave its territory – not Cyprus, not Turkey, not Egypt. Even the UN secretary general and countries not otherwise directly involved got involved! Did we pressure them too?”

Perhaps because he retired from the foreign service over a decade ago, former diplomat Avi Primor, today a Europe expert and president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, is a bit less defensive.

“Nothing short of direct pressure can make what happened this year come about,” he tells The Report. “A lot of the activity was in the Foreign Ministry. But what really seems to have done it was the personal rapport that’s developed between Netanyahu and [Greek Prime Minister George] Papandreou. Papandreou’s father [Andreas] was a real socialist at a time when the Arab world was important to Greece. Today, there seems to be a certain chemistry between the younger Papandreou and Netanyahu.”
Chemistry or not, both countries seem to need each other. As this issue of The Report went to press, Greek President Karolos Papoulias was due in Israel for a 48-hour visit, a few hours of which were to be spent in Ramallah meeting with leaders of the Palestinian Authority. He was to be accompanied by Greece’s foreign minister, as well as its minister for culture and tourism and the deputy minister for environment, energy and climate change.
“[Israeli and Greek] ministers and officials systematically consult and work together on all levels and in key areas: energy, defense and security, agriculture, tourism,” Papoulias wrote to Jerusalem Post diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon in a response to several e-mailed questions just prior to his visit. “We are also working together on international issues and matters of regional concern to both countries. We are pursuing a strong relationship – strong on trade, strong on investment, strong on political and security cooperation.”
Part of the focus of Papoulias’s visit – and probably the main reason he was bringing such a senior energy official – are recent natural gas finds.
“[T]he discovery of major reserves off the coast of Cyprus and Israel changes the geo-economic situation in the region,” he told Keinon. “It opens up new opportunities for cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. That is why it is now strategically even more important that a viable solution be found to the Cyprus problem, and we are counting on the support of Israel to achieve this.”
This last statement may give credence to the conjecture of exdiplomat Primor, who feels that Athens sees in Israel “a form of insurance.” “Greece’s economic standing requires it to be careful with the EU and the IMF,” he explains. “They are the only bodies that can help it out of its current economic predicament, and the IMF is American money. It’s possible that Athens sees the road to Washington as running through Israel. It’s not true, of course, but there are people who continue to think this way.”