Al Jazeera: How Greece went from a friendly Palestinian country to one of Israel’s closest allies

Al Jazeera: How Greece went from a friendly Palestinian country to one of Israel’s closest allies
Al Jazeera: How Greece went from a friendly Palestinian country to one of Israel’s closest allies

File Photo Snapshot from the meeting between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Photo Megaro Maximos

Greece has established itself as an ardent supporter of Israel, a position unthinkable just over a decade ago and apparently contrary to public opinion, writes Al Jazeera. And this, because as analysts argue, the two countries share energy ambitions, defense cooperation and a suspicion of Turkey.

In the article entitled “Once pro-Palestinian, Greece is now one of Israel’s closest European allies” signed by John Psaropoulosnoted among others:

“I come here not just as an ally but as a true friend,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 23. “Greece from the first moment supported Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international law,” he added.

Unlike some other European leaders who showed similar solidarity, Mitsotakis did not see fit to visit Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Fatah movement. This attitude may cause discomfort to the two-thirds of Greeks who support neutrality in the current war, the columnist observes. While just 18.4% favor Israel, 11.5% want Greece to be openly pro-Palestinian, according to a poll broadcast by the Star Channel two days after Mitsotakis’ visit.

Despite supporting humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza, Greece was one of 45 countries that abstained from a UN General Assembly vote calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on 27 October. A majority of 120 countries voted in favor.

“Eight EU members voted in favor of the UN call for a humanitarian ceasefire. Greece, under Mitsotakis, chose not to be among them,” the MEP of the opposition SYRIZA party, Dimitris Papadimoulis, told Al Jazeera. “He who wants humanity and peace to prevail” would pursue a “more balanced position that also maintains good relations with the Arab world – a position that favors a solution for the Palestinians,” Papadimoulis said.

Greece, however, joined the European Council’s call for “safe and unimpeded humanitarian access” to Gaza on October 27, “including humanitarian pauses and corridors.” But Greece has gone beyond statements by helping Israel.

According to Greek media, a large number of United States C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft have been stationed at the US air and naval base in Souda Bay, Crete, and the Greek Air Force Base in Elefsina, near Athens, in in which case a mass evacuation of American citizens from Israel will be deemed necessary.

The change of attitude

Greece’s official foreign policy position, now supported by parties of the right and left, is quite different from its traditionally pro-Palestinian policy during the Cold War, when Greece and Israel had not yet developed full diplomatic relations.

When Netanyahu’s predecessor, Menachem Begin, invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLO’s military wing in 1982, Greek ships ferried the organization’s leader, Yasser Arafat, to safety in Athens. Back then, the Palestinians often demonstrated in the streets of Athens with the support of Greek leftist parties, to make their case on European soil.

Support for the Palestinians was not just sentimental. Greek-owned tankers carry a third of the world’s crude oil, and that trade has dictated good relations with the Arab world for decades.

Another reason was Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974. “Greece was very interested in getting the UN votes in favor of its position on the Cyprus issue,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, explains to Al Jazeera. “So he had to weigh the one vote that Israel had against the 20 or so votes of the Arab countries.”

  • The beginnings of the rapprochement with Israel go back to 1990, when the father of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, former Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, fully and legally recognized Israel, which he deemed necessary “for the restoration and consolidation of peace in the region”.

However, Israel’s close relationship with Turkey in the 1990s was a problem for Greece. “The Turkish criterion, a constant variable in the Greek foreign ministry, dictates that we cannot have good relations with Israel if it also develops its relations with Turkey,” a senior Greek government official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “We gave them this dilemma, and the Israelis at that time had much more strategic interests in Turkey, so we forced them to choose Turkey.”

But in 2010, another conflict between the Israeli army and Hamas changed everything. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a flotilla of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Israeli commandos attacked the flotilla, suspecting it was carrying weapons, killing nine people. The collapse of Turkish-Israeli relations was a vacuum that Greece’s political establishment moved to fill “with astonishing speed”, Tziapiris underlined.

  • “Israel has seen Greece all these years as a gateway to the European Union that could ease its relationship with the EU and ease its isolation over its treatment of the Palestinians,” the government official said. “Greece’s budding friendship with Israel “is not personal or partisan, but represents a national strategy that has been going on for almost 15 years,” Tziapiris explains.

In a country whose politicians are engaged in infighting and often place partisan interests above national interests, this is “admirable”, he stresses.

It is pointed out that Greece had its own reasons for embracing Israel. It was effectively bankrupt that year and needed a bailout from its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Turning to Israel, it drew even closer to the US. Greece was also becoming part of a nascent energy partnership. 2010 was the year Israel discovered Leviathan, which allowed it to own 566 billion cubic meters of natural gas and thereby become overnight the largest owner of exportable natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The following year, Greece and Israel began discussing the construction of EastMed – a 1,900-kilometer undersea pipeline primarily to transport 10-20 billion cubic meters of Israeli natural gas to Europe via Greece each year. Greek hydrocarbon mining companies have formed a consortium to build this pipeline, and an Athens-based company already plays a strategic role in the Israeli economy. Partly through Israeli funding, Energean has now commissioned a floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) platform moored offshore Israel, which extracts and liquefies Israeli offshore gas for export.

  • When Greek-Turkish relations soured in 2020, Greece sought a relationship with Israel’s sophisticated defense industry. In this context, it signed its first military agreement with Israel on May 6, 2020, leasing two Heron UAVs to monitor the Aegean.

Greece had been caught napping by Turkey’s deployment of Bayraktar drones and needed the Herons as an interim solution before developing its own UAVs – something the Hellenic Aerospace Industry is now doing in collaboration with Greek universities. In 2022, Greece would also buy the Drone Dome anti-drone defense system from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and in 2023 it would buy dozens of Orbiter 3 surveillance and reconnaissance drones, also from Rafael.

Mitsotakis signed cybersecurity cooperation protocols with Netanyahu in June 2020 and called on Israeli investors to use Greece as a base to reach the EU single market, especially in the IT sector.

Unlike in 2010, when the Greek economy was faltering, the invitation found a response this time. In February 2021, Israeli defense manufacturers SK Group and Plasan took control of the locked-out Hellenic Vehicle Industry (ELVO). In 2022, Greece and Israel’s Elbit opened a joint flight training center in the southern Greek city of Kalamata.

Israel had once sought training airspace from Turkey. He now had the use of the vast Athens flight information area. In 2023, Greece bought 34 Spike NLOS short-range missile defense systems with about 500 missiles from Israel’s Elbit to protect its islands in the eastern Aegean.

As the columnist notes, Turkey moved in the opposite direction during this period, offering Hamas leaders passports and offices on Turkish soil. Erdogan recently frustrated Washington when he said Hamas was not a “terrorist” organization and called Israel an “occupier.” This development places Greece and Turkey on opposite sides during the conflict in Gaza, the columnist concludes.

“Hosting Hamas has always been an issue between Israel and Turkey and when we talked about rapprochement it was an issue that was on the table and is still on the table,” Israeli Ambassador Noam Katz clarified on Greek Open TV, according to the publication.

Source Al Jazzera

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