Greek ambassador: Turkish threat in Mediterranean reaches Israel's shores

When it comes to Turkey, Greece’s “reflexes are a bit like [Israel's] with Iran,” Sarris said.

Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz sets sail in Izmit Bay, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, off the port of Dilovasi, Turkey, June 20, 2019 (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz sets sail in Izmit Bay, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, off the port of Dilovasi, Turkey, June 20, 2019
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
When Greek Ambassador Panagiotis Sarris arrived in Israel, the world was a different place. He landed on February 20 and was set to give his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin two and a half weeks later, but by then Israel – along with much of the world – was locking down to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The ceremony at the President’s Residence was rescheduled for Wednesday, but with the COVID-19 numbers on the rise again, new lockdown restrictions kicked in this week. After four months on the job, Sarris was able to officially give in his credentials, but without the planned celebration at the King David hotel afterward.
Despite the formal, ceremonial start of his ambassadorship to Israel being postponed by over four months, Sarris has had plenty of work to do, with his Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visiting Israel last month, along with eight other ministers.
One of the top issues on the agenda for Israel and Greece is the “East-Med” energy project, that would include constructing a 1,900 km offshore and onshore gas pipeline from Israeli economic waters to the Greek mainland, via Cyprus and Crete, and would connect to Italy via the planned Poseidon Pipeline in Greece. It would be the longest pipeline in the world, transporting gas from Israel and Cyprus’ economic waters starting in 2025.
Sarris called the project “very promising.”
“The EU funded all the preliminary studies for this project, and they never finance projects they don’t believe in,” the ambassador said.
What is needed at this point, Sarris explained, is approval from Italy so the gas can then go to central and Northern Europe. He expressed optimism that Italy would get onboard.
At the same time, there are shared security concerns for Israel, Greece and Cyprus in relation to the project, with Turkey making claims to a large part of the Mediterranean. In November, Turkey and Libya signed a maritime agreement, trying to establish exclusive economic zones (EEZ) for their countries in the Mediterranean Sea, overlapping with Greece and Cyprus’ territorial waters.
“We’re used to having problems with Turkey over the years but found ways of managing more or less,” Sarris said of his country’s historic enemy, “but this was too much. They signed a memorandum with Libya saying these countries have sea borders. It’s sufficient to see the map of the Mediterranean to understand that this is nonsense.” 
Sarris pointed out that Turkey never accepted the Law of the Sea, which has been signed by 157 countries beginning in 1982, and now Turkey claims that they may drill seven miles south of Crete - a Greek island with a population of a million people - but Greece can’t. 
“This puts us in a difficult position, because if they drill [in Greek waters], we have to respond,” Sarris added.
When it comes to Turkey, Greece’s “reflexes are a bit like yours with Iran,” Sarris said.
And Israel has reason to be concerned, as well.
“If were are overpowered in the Mediterranean, Israel will feel the impact of this resurrection of the old Ottoman empire,” the ambassador warned.
Sarris pointed to a report in the Turkish newspaper Aydinlik that the Palestinian envoy to Ankara Faed Mustafa said Ramallah may sign an agreement with Turkey similar with the one in Libya to establish an EEZ in the Mediterranean, saying “Palestine has shares in oil and gas located in the eastern Mediterranean. We are ready to cooperate in these areas and sign a deal.”
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry later said the remarks were taken out of context, the Palestinian Authority is not negotiating any such deal, and that they maintain close ties with Greece, Cyprus and Turkey based on international law, WAFA reported.
“I hope these are just talks and nothing more than that,” Sarris said. “This is coming to your borders too. It’s something we have to deal with.”
The Greek ambassador said Egypt has also become nervous about Turkish influence destabilizing its western border.
“We want Turkey to be part of the East-Med and other projects in the Mediterranean, but we have to make it clear, we want to be equal partners. They cannot be the neighborhood bully taking advantage of their growth. They must respect international law and the Law of the Sea,” he said.
In that context, Israel and Greece’s military cooperation has increased in recent years, with Hellenic National Defense Chief of Staff Gen. Konstantinos Floros coming to Israel next Tuesday to meet with his counterpart, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
“We can help you, you can help us, our interests coincide,” Sarris said.
Those interests are not only in the area of defense. Greece is one of the growing number of countries that has asked Israel to help with its lobbying efforts in the US, due to strong ties between the countries.
And in return, the ambassador said Greece is trying to “discretely” help Israeli diplomatic efforts in the EU.
When it comes to the EU reaction to the possibility that Israel will extend its law to parts of the West Bank, Sarris pointed out that Israel does not need Greece’s help in preventing EU sanctions, since that policy requires unanimity among member states and there are several states opposing such a move.
However, he said “we are trying to help in another area that is dear to Israel and not a question of unanimity, the Horizon [scientific research funding] program. We are trying really hard to help as much as we can in the European Commission.”
Asked if the East-Med program could be on the chopping block if Israel applies sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, Sarris pointed to the massive European Bank investments in it as making it more likely to move forward, but said the response will depend on what Israel does.
“We don’t know yet how the Israeli government will proceed,” he said, pointing to reports that Israel may apply sovereignty to a few settlements or the Trump peace plan that allows for Israeli law over 30% of the West Bank.
These days, the Israeli government’s main focus is on fighting coronavirus, and while Greece’s numbers are better than Israel’s, they are feeling the economic aftershocks.
“We had an economic crisis for seven or eight years, and the moment we started rebounding, coronavirus struck,” Sarris said.
Greece’s two biggest industries are tourism and shipping, and both were hurt by the pandemic.
“Last year, 35 million people visited Greece. This year, if we get 10% of that, it will be a success,” the ambassador explained.
When Mitsotakis visited, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped to have Israeli tourists traveling to and from Greece and Cyprus in August. Now, with the second wave of coronavirus taking place, this seems unlikely.
Sarris pointed out that Greece is a popular tourist destination for Israelis, with 800,000 visiting last year, and this year the projections were even higher.
“We are keen to have you, and we know you are keen to come. The embassy is flooded with telephone calls every day from Israeli tourists,” he said.
Sarris was confident that once tourism bounces back, Israelis will return to Greece, and therefore is focused on expanding bilateral ties between the countries in areas where he would play a more active role, such as investments, start-ups, renewables and smart agriculture.
For example, he said, Israel “can offer start-ups and new technologies. We can offer...a huge amount of engineers, and due to the economic crisis, their salaries are very competitive.
“If you produce things in Greece,” Sarris added, “you get a ‘made in Greece’ label, which is important to enter the huge European market and some Arab states will feel more comfortable if the label of the product says it is made in Greece...We can provide you with this opportunity.
“It’s really a win-win,” he said.
Sarris said that strengthening Israel-Greece ties is easy, because Israel “feels like being at home.”
“We are both peoples who have been in this region for 2,500 years and work well together,” he said.