The Athens & Jerusalem Two-Step

By Aryeh Tepper
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The eastern Mediterranean is in a state of serious flux. Egypt just had a revolution; weapons continue flowing into Gaza; on the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is cleaning house in the wake of the Palestine Papers; Hizballah is poised to assert its rule over Lebanon; Turkey acts as if it's no longer a bridge between East and West but an international center of Islamic causes; and Greece is recovering from a catastrophic economic meltdown. Historically, under such volatile conditions, old bonds tend to dissolve and new partnerships to emerge. The present is no exception. One example is Turkey's support for the Hamas terror regime in Gaza. Another is Greece's surprising new friendship with Israel and its outreach to the American Jewish community.

The warming in Greek-Israeli relations was on display last summer in an exchange of diplomatic visits between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. Netanyahu's trip, the first ever for an Israeli PM, was especially significant. The two men's discussions were followed by visits of the Greek foreign minister to Jerusalem in October and of the Israeli foreign minister to Athens in January. These are now being translated into concrete forms of cooperation.

The new amity extends beyond diplomats and politicians. Greece has replaced Turkey as a preferred destination for Israeli tourists; a group of Greek firefighters helped put out the recent forest fires in Israel's north. At the beginning of February, at Papandreou's personal invitation, a delegation from the American Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations made its own first-ever visit to Greece, where their hosts promised to help Israel gain access to European markets and, in turn, expressed the hope of attracting Jewish and Israeli investment in Greece.

For anyone familiar with recent history, these new overtures are startling, to say the least. During World War II, approximately 90 percent of Greek Jewry was annihilated by the Nazis, and to this day Greeks refuse to acknowledge their complicity, preferring instead to remember isolated stories of heroic resistance. The 5,000 Jews still living in Greece suffer from anti-Semitism deeply rooted in Greek society.

During the 1970s and 80s, Greece became a second home for a number of international terror groups, including Palestinian ones; it was no accident that Athens was the departure point of the 1976 plane hijacked to Entebbe, whose Jewish passengers were finally rescued in a daring raid under the command of Yoni Netanyahu. Aspiring to a position of leadership in the third world, Greece's government extended diplomatic recognition to the PLO in 1981, nine years before it would officially recognize Israel. Today the Greek mainstream press remains stridently anti-Israel, frequently resorting to the stock equation of the Jewish state with Nazi Germany.

What, then, is going on with the current rapprochement? The most obvious motivating factor is economic. While Greece suffered a devastating meltdown in 2008, Israel has weathered the recent economic storms fairly well and is a magnet for governments, individual investors, and others looking for islands of both stability and innovation. But that is not the whole story. Large amounts of natural-gas reserves having been discovered off its coast, Israel is looking for a partner to ship the gas to the Balkans and the rest of Europe. Greece has eagerly stepped into the breach.

There are also geopolitical considerations, again on both sides. Greece is quite naturally unsettled by the turn of its historic nemesis Turkey toward Islam, if not Islamism. Israel is no less troubled by the breakdown in its long-term strategic relationship with the Turks. Strengthening the Greece-Israel relationship is only natural in this context. Serendipitously, the process may have been smoothed by another intriguing if somewhat counterintuitive fact, which is the reported personal chemistry between Netanyahu and Papandreou (possibly an outgrowth of their shared experience of a childhood spent in the U.S. while their respective fathers were teaching there).

In a larger sense, though, today's developments may recall an earlier moment in recent Greek history and strategic thinking. It was the pro-Western, New Democracy government led by Constantine Mitsotakis that established diplomatic relations with Israel and in the early 90s pushed a pro-Israel foreign policy; in 1994, the two countries even signed a defense-cooperation agreement. That pact, relegated to the margins, reflected a strain in Greek realpolitik whose time would seem to have come around again.  

The 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston famously said that nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. The realignments taking place in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the form of the new Greek-Israeli friendship, would seem to bear out his claim. The fact that the Greek government is courting the Jewish state and the Jewish people is to be wondered at. But for Jews in Israel and abroad, it testifies to the hard-boiled truth at the heart of political Zionism: sentiments and attitudes aside, the future of the Jewish people depends upon the wise cultivation of its own interests and power.  

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