By JAY BUSHINSKY
Can Greece replace Turkey as Israel’s foremost strategical ally in the Eastern Mediterranean region? To a certain extent, yes, but not entirely.The Greeks can provide air space for Israeli warplanes to practice for long-range combat missions.RELATED:Netanyahu meets Greek PM in AthensGreek PM's visit signals warming ties(Since the withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula three decades ago, Israel’s minuscule size precluded such activity here.) They also can increase their purchases of sophisticated military hardware made in Israel and expand the sharing of sensitive intelligence data.Greece already is a choice alternative for Israeli tourists, 400,000 of whom used to fill Turkey’s relatively low-cost and very comfortable resort hotels. It also offers ample opportunities for shoppers out to buy for less and to sightseers bent on exploring ancient sites like Athens’ Acropolis.Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had these considerations in mind when he embarked on his twoday official visit to Athens this week. His trip, the first by an incumbent Israeli prime minister, followed an inaugural visit to this country by his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, a month ago.Netanyahu’s itinerary included a voyage aboard a Greek naval vessel made in Israel as well as meetings with senior military and diplomatic aides as well as with Papandreou himself.However, Greece has several limitations of which Netanyahu surely is aware.Its population is substantially smaller than Turkey’s: 12 million compared to 63 million. Hence, its purchasing power is substantially less.Historically, Greece has maintained a correct if not especially cordial diplomatic relationship with Israel.This is due to wide-ranging trade links with the Arab states as well as an active left wing that supports the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict. The two pro- or neo-communist parties in Greece objected strenuously to Netanyahu’s arrival and managed to run up Palestinian flags over the Parthenon in advance of the Israeli leader’s tour there.On the other hand, the fact that the Greeks fought Nazi Germany and suffered from its brief occupation while the Jews were the primary victims also must be borne in mind as a coalescing factor. (Turkey, on the other hand, was neutral until the very end of World War II.) Politically, Greece has much less influence over the Arab states than Turkey.Like them, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim state, even though its constitution advocates secularism in governmental as well as social affairs. Ankara’s ruling Islamic party, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, even aspires to reassert the regional hegemony enjoyed by the former Ottoman Empire, which ruled in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem and Cairo – at least insofar as foreign policy is concerned.However, the Greeks have several advantages. Their country is a longtime member of the European Union, a multi-national body in which Israel is vitally interested and which it would be happy to join if given the opportunity. They also serve as discreet intermediaries for Israel’s unpublicized exports to the Arab states.There also is a profound Greek religious interest and involvement in the Holy Land.The Greek Orthodox church is one of Israel’s major landowners. Its possessions include churches and monasteries throughout the country (especially in Jerusalem, where its prelates granted the prestate Zionists permission to build the attractive Rehavia neighborhood on land adjacent to the Monastery of the Cross). And thousands of Greek Orthodox pilgrims flock to Israel annually, especially for Christmas and Easter on the dates designated by the Greek religious calendar.Actually, an Israeli swing away from Turkey toward Greece – because of Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric and behavior, especially since the May 31 seizure of a Gaza-bound flotilla by the Israeli navy and the death of nine Turkish passengers on board one of the ships – could backfire on Ankara.It already has undermined Turkey’s ability to act as a regional mediator (between Israel and Syria, for example), prompted grave warnings from the US that military equipment sought by the Turkish armed forces may be withheld and thrown Turkey out of step with the international effort to deter Iran from expanding its nuclear development program.Inevitably, Greece will act in its own best interests.And if these include the upgrading of military and business links with Israel (whose burgeoning economy also could help Athens solve its financial problems), so be it – unless Greek public opinion stands in the way.
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