TNH Staff Writers
ATHENS, Greece — In an historic visit that could transform political and economic relations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in Athens on August 16 for a two-day visit and met with his Greek counterpart, Prime Minister George Papandreou.
In Athens the two leaders discussed tourism, military issues, renewable energy and water resources. They went to the nearby island of Poros on August 17 where Reuters reported: “Israeli and Greek leaders discussed expanding military ties..including sharing military know-how and holding joint war games.” They were joined by Defense Minister Evangelos Venizelos, Deputy Defense Minister Panos Beglitis and Alternate Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas.
Netanyahus two-day visit was the first ever by an Israeli prime minister to Greece and follows a visit Papandreou paid to Israel last month. The trips were preceded by deterioration in relations between Israel and Turkey, Greeces traditional rival, since an Israeli commando raid in May on an international flotilla that attempted to break Israels blockade of the Gaza Strip killed nine Turkish activists. Both leaders, however, said that improving Greek-Israeli ties was not related to Israels relations with Turkey.
Security was tight as left-wing groups were planning demonstrations to protest Israels policies in the Middle East and the Israeli commando raid; Greek activists also participated in the flotilla. The day before Netanyahu’s visit, a Palestinian flag was put up on the wall of the Acropolis. Police increased patrols in the capital, and cars were barred from parking along key routes.
A RAPID TURN
Over past two years relations between Israel and Greece have been improving. The Israeli air force carried out military exercises in Greek airspace in 2008 and 2010. Although Athens interrupted this year’s maneuvers after the flotilla incident, as Kathimerini reported on August 18, they will continue in October.
“Israel has been keen to expand ties with Greece as its relations with Turkey…soured,” Reuters reported, quoting Netanyahu as saying the two nations were opening a new chapter.” The news agency also reported Netanyahu “told reporters that he and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had discussed military cooperation,” and that someone in Netanyahus entourage said the discussions “explored establishing greater cooperation between both countries military industries and armies.” It continued: “A Greek official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed they ‘talked about new forms of cooperation on defense and security issues’ including the expansion of joint military exercises and sharing technological knowledge.”
At a joint news conference on August 16, Papandreou acknowledged Greece and Israel were looking at expanding strategic ties. Reuters reported that “Israeli officials said a team of experts on security and trade ties would soon meet to map out further details.” The agency quoted a senior Israeli official as saying: Relations are now developing at great speed due to our common interests.”
Kathimerini wrote on August 18 that the Israeli air force chief will soon visit Greece and that “Venizelos should soon visit Israel so the two countries can discuss other areas of military cooperation.”
WE STILL LOVE YOU
Middle East Online reported the same day that “Greece moved to reassure Arab allies over the strength of its friendship.” It quoted Droutsas in an interview with Flash Radio saying that Greece’s rapprochement with Israel is “for the good of Greece and all the Mideast.” Droutsas added: “Do not exclude our close cooperation with the Arab world, and particularly our Palestinian friends.”
Greek governments have long seen themselves as potential mediators between the Jewish state and Arab countries, as well as the Palestinians, with whom Greece has traditionally maintained good relations. The Greek prime minister’s office told the Associated Press that he spoke by August 15 by telephone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League. A government official, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, said Papandreou wanted – before his meeting with Netanyahu – to hear the Arab leaders opinions on the Middle East peace process, including the push for a resumption of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
Concerning Papandreou’s wish to maintain good relations with Arab states, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) wrote: “Officials at the Foreign Ministry in Athens have reportedly made it clear that they do not want the visit to be seen as if the country were creating any kind of alliance with Israel against Turkey.”
HOPES FOR MIDEAST TALKS
The Israelis and Palestinians are at odds over terms for restarting direct talks. DPA reported: “Abbas is wary of entering open-ended talks with Netanyahu, who has retreated from some of the concessions offered by his predecessors, while Netanyahu and his top Cabinet ministers have said they will not accept any conditions for resuming negotiations…Under an emerging compromise, the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — is considering issuing an invitation for direct talks that would list underlying principles and a time frame.” It appears that talks cannot re-start until the diplomatic wreckage of the flotilla commando raid is cleared away. One of the proposals for creating an atmosphere conducive to peace talks is the establishment of “safe harbors” in Mediterranean countries where goods could be shipped to and from the Gaza Strip. The issue may have come up at the Greek-Israeli meetings. The DPA noted: “It had been suggested that one of those harbors could be in Greece, though this has merely remained a suggestion so far.”
NOT TALKING TURKEY
Both Netanyahu and Papandreou insisted that improving Greek-Israeli ties had nothing to do with Israels deteriorating relations with Turkey. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes the Greek PM as saying “My visit was planned a long time ago. Ive been thinking of forging closer ties with Israel for about two years. This is not my first visit to Israel. As chairman of PASOK Ive had warm ties with the sister parties – Labor and Meretz – as well as the Palestinian sister parties – PLO and Barghoutis party.”
Haaretz noted, “Greek commentators say that in addition to the change in Greek public opinion regarding the history of Greeks Jews before and during the Holocaust, centrists and leftists are now encouraging Greece to expand its relations in the Middle East.”
Papandreou is careful when he discusses relations with Israel. Haaretz points out that many Greeks call him the American, having been born to an American mother and having spent years abroad,” causing some to suggest he is merely doing America’s bidding. He also wants to preserve the improvement he has engineered in relations with Turkey.
Haaretz notes Papandreou says his position on Palestine is clear. He is quoted as saying: We want to see the end of the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state, a stable and viable state that would live in full cooperation and peace with Israel. Eventually it will be the best guarantee for Israels security.
As intriguing as the visit was with respect to the military and political balance of power in the region and the prospects for peace in the Middle East, in light of Greece’s economic troubles, many observers pointed to possible economic repercussions in the areas of tourism, industry and technology transfer, particularly involving defense and renewable energy. Some Greek Americans have perceived in the trip a green light to proceed more quickly with recent and longstanding initiatives to strengthen ties between the Greek and Jewish American communities.
Compiled from reports of the AP, Reuters, DPA, Haaretz and Kathimerini.