Can Israel, Greece and Turkey cooperate?

In the last years, Athens and Jerusalem have exhibited a remarkable capacity of enriching their collaboration.

GREEK PRIME Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks during a press briefing in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
GREEK PRIME Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks during a press briefing in Jerusalem last week.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
The visit of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Israel was highly symbolic. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The father of Kyriakos, former Greek prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, had made the far-seeing decision to recognize the Jewish state de jure in 1990, at the beginning of his term as Greece’s premier. And now Kyriakos Mitsotakis travels to Jerusalem not only to honor his father’s wisdom but to further cement a continuously growing relationship. It is his first visit to a foreign country after the novel coronavirus pandemic began. His last stop out of his home country was Berlin at the beginning of March.
In the last years, Athens and Jerusalem have exhibited a remarkable capacity of enriching their collaboration. Either bilaterally or trilaterally – with the participation of Cyprus – this collaboration has acquired a multifaceted character. Trust is the key of success. The more the countries talk to each other at the political level and beyond, the better it is. This is what the Israel-Hellenic Forum, founded by B’nai B’rith World Center and which the author co-convenes, seeks to facilitate.
The current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is worrying. Although the evolution of Israeli-Greek relations functions as a pillar of stability, contradictory interests of bigger and regional players played out in different fields cause high uncertainty. Turkey, in particular, believes it is being treated unfairly and reacts to what it perceives as its alleged exclusion from talks on energy discoveries.
Of course, the country is welcome to take part in the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF). The terms of dialogue are set by the majority, not the minority, though. Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are already members of this forum and accept some general principles. Turkey has to follow the path.
The discussion about inclusivity is very complicated. Changes do not happen overnight, especially when thorns like the Cyprus question have the potential of immediately derailing mediation efforts. Other parameters, such as the problematic status of relations between Egypt and Turkey, need similarly to be taken into account.
The participation of the Palestinian Authority in the EMGF, however, shows that difficulties are occasionally overcome. Also, new attempts by Jerusalem and Ankara to normalize their ties suggest that cooperation on some issues is possible despite disagreements on others.
TO BE FAIR, ongoing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean do not allow much optimism for a breakthrough. Having said that, the realistic objective – as an ambitious beginning – is the creation of a cooperative platform on themes which are not very sensitive. It is here where it would be worthy for Israel and Greece to explore some synergies with Turkey. Other interested countries of the Mediterranean will be able to participate should they be interested.
For starters, four fields of joint interest can be identified. First, the fight against COVID-19 requires better coordination. While the public health crisis is far from over, lessons from Israel and Greece in containing the virus and relaunching their national economies would certainly be useful for Turkey, which has been comparatively behind in its own battle.
Second, the necessity to combat antisemitism will possibly bring the three countries together. Progress in Greece and Turkey has been significant over the last years but there is certainly room for deeper action. The 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, published a few days ago by the US Department of State, concentrates on Greek and Turkish cases of antisemitism that outline existing hatred against Jews in societies.
Third, energy transition in the post-coronavirus era is another area of shared concern. Jerusalem and Ankara have already made impressive steps in the production or usage of renewables, whereas Athens under its current government envisions catching up. The fall in oil and natural gas prices due to COVID-19 and the dangers of global warming make the common emphasis on green energy an obvious priority for the three nations.
And fourth, Israel, Greece and Turkey are experiencing a similar type of Chinese investments, for example, in the ports of Haifa, Piraeus and Ambarli in Istanbul. Without overlooking American geopolitical calculations, they have the chance to focus on trade connectivity and maximize their much needed benefits by the implementation of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
To sum up, 30 years after the establishment of full diplomatic relations, Israel and Greece can open new pages in their friendship and expand their partnership. By thinking out of the box, they will take the initiative of offering Turkey an opportunity to look beyond polarization and provocative or illegal policies. If there is political will, the dialogue will have a spillover effect.
The writer is a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior associate and lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.