By Benjamin Weinthal
Two key events over the last month marked the complex tango between Greece and Israel. First, the step forward: Greece’s foreign minister Nikos Kotzias announced in a letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his government will defy the European Union’s rules punishing Israeli settlement products.
Greece’s defiance of the EU penalty that slaps Israel with a negative labeling system cannot be overemphasized enough as a victory for Israel’s economy and diplomacy. The EU singled out the Israel-Palestinian territorial dispute—one of over 200 in the world—as warranting labeling. Jewish products from the disputed territories in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights were sanctioned.
The EU has not, for example, targeted products from Turkish-occupied North Cyprus. Greece, along with Hungary, rejects the demarcation of Israeli products. Israel views the labeling of its products as part and parcel of the fiercely anti-Israel (and many say anti-Semitic) Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Second, the step backward for Greece-Israel relations: Greece’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling to recognize a Palestinian state independent of bilateral Palestine Liberation Organization negotiations with Israel. The Greek resolution mirrored earlier parliamentary recognition moves by Ireland, France and Britain.
From the Greek point of view, it is difficult to ignore Palestinian aspirations because of the parallel some see with Turkey’s illicit occupation of northern Cyprus. The Greek shipping industry’s ties to the Arab world because of oil was also a factor. There is additional sympathy for Palestinians in Greece because most Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox and the Church of Greece has strong relations with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely sought to play down the Greek parliamentary vote, saying it is a “recognition that has no practical significance.” More important, according to Kathimerini, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declined to unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood. “When the time is deemed to be right, Greece will make the necessary steps,” he said.
It is entirely possible that Netanyahu remained low-key about the recognition vote because he does not want to inflict pressure on Tsipras’s wobbly coalition.
The Greek leader’s meeting with Netanyahu in Israel last month revealed the maturity of his leadership. Tsipras stressed that Athens can serve as an honest broker in the peace process. “Greece can play this role of a bridge in the direction of a just and viable solution to the Palestine issue,” he said. Previously, Athens has proposed hosting Israel-Palestinian negotiations on one of its islands.
Tsipras issued an unusual boost for Israel’s capital Jerusalem. While European leaders refuse to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, Tsipras wrote in Israel President Reuven Rivlin’s guest book: “With great honor to be in your historic capital and to meet your excellencies.”
It is worth recalling that Greece and Israel have only had full diplomatic (embassy level) relations since May 1991—a terribly young relationship. Meanwhile, the 3,500-year Greek-Jewish relationship got a shot in the arm this year. US archeologists from the University of North Carolina uncovered artwork in a fifth-century synagogue in the village of Huqoq, near the Sea of Galilee, possibly depicting a meeting between Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest.
Back to the present: While European left-wing parties and governments frequently apply a double-standard to Israel and demonize the country, Tsipras has not engaged in one-sided attacks. Syriza officials, however, have organized protests in Athens against Israel’s operation to stop Hamas rocket fire into its territory. Thodoris Dritsas, a Syriza politician, participated in a flotilla trying to break Israel’s legal naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The US and the EU designate Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Prior to Tsipras’s tenure as prime minister, he and Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres held a warm and thoughtful meeting in 2012.
In a 2015 article for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Ambassador Arye Mekel, who served as Israel’s envoy to Greece from 2010 to 2014, wrote, “Peres refrained from politics and discussed his vision of the role the young generation should play in today’s world. Tsipras listened intently, insisted on speaking Greek and expressed no criticism of Israel. The two mused about their age difference of more than 50 years.”
Mekel’s analysis from January 2015 regarding Tsipras’s then-new governing coalition is still valid: “The new Greek government is unlikely to change its policy towards Israel in the near future.”
Greek governments—from the Socialists (Pasok) led by George Papandreou to the Conservative’s (New Democracy) of Antonis Samaras—and, lastly, to the present coalition between the leftist Syriza party and the right-wing Independent Greeks—have engaged in strong military and economic cooperation with Israel.
In April, the Israel Air Force and the Hellenic Air Force carried out a joint military exercise, on the island of Crete, testing tactics against sophisticated Russian-made S-300 air-defense systems. Greece is the only NATO member to have the S-300 in service; Russia has sold S-300 systems to Iran.
A significant factor in solidifying Greek-Israel relations since 2010 is the 800-pound silent gorilla in the room—the Republic of Turkey. After ten Turkish Islamists were killed by Israeli commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara protest vessel, which sought to reach Gaza in May 2010, Turkey-Israeli relations hit rock-bottom.
The current round of Turkish-Israeli talks designed to revive full diplomatic relations might be a foreign policy game-changer for Greece. But while Turkey’s democracy continues to be gutted under its Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Greeks and Israelis, to quote Netanyahu, have a “natural affinity” for each other.
Netanyahu told Tsipras in their late November meeting: “We’re the two democracies in the eastern Mediterranean and we are obviously aware that we have a world of opportunities—of technology, of development, of progress—to seize and we can seize it better through cooperation. But equally we also understand that there are great challenges before us, especially very violent religious fundamentalism that seeks to sweep our world, is sweeping the Middle East, is sweeping North Africa and Europe and other parts of the world.”
Israeli tourism to Greece has mushroomed over the last few years. Netanyahu said, “In my early visit to Greece, I said—I think we had only 50,000 Israeli tourists [annually] at the time. I said we’ll grow it by hundreds of thousands. Today we’re at 350,000.”
In retrospect, 2015 was a largely successful tango for Greek-Israel relations. The mainstream, cross-party support in Greece for retaining solid diplomatic relations with the Jewish state bodes well for the future.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal