JERUSALEM — Can Greece replace Turkey as Israel’s foremost strategic ally in the Eastern Mediterranean region?
To a certain extent, yes, but not entirely.
The Greeks can provide air space for Israeli warplanes to practice for long-range combat missions. (Since the withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula three decades ago Israel’s miniscule size precludes such activity here.)
Greece also can increase its purchases of sophisticated military hardware made in Israel and expand its sharing of sensitive intelligence data.
Greece already is a choice alternative for Israeli tourists, 400,000 of whom used to fill Turkey’s relatively low-cost and very comfortable resort hotels. It also offers ample opportunities for shoppers out to buy for less and to sightseers bent on exploring ancient sites such as Athens’ Acropolis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had these considerations in mind when he embarked on a two-day official visit to Athens this week. His trip, the first by an incumbent Israeli prime minister, followed an inaugural visit to Israel last month by the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou.
Netanyahu’s itinerary included a voyage aboard a Greek naval vessel made in Israel as well as meetings with senior military and diplomatic aides as well as with Papandreou himself.
However, Greece has several limitations of which Netanyahu surely is aware.
Its population is substantially smaller than Turkey’s: 12 million compared to 63 million. Hence, its purchasing power is substantially less.
Historically, Greece has maintained a correct if not especially cordial diplomatic relationship with Israel. This is due to wide-ranging trade links with the Arab states and an active left wing that supports the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict. The two pro- or neo-communist parties in Greece strongly objected to Netanyahu’s arrival and managed to run up Palestinian flags over the Parthenon in advance of the Israeli leader’s tour there.
On the other hand, the fact that the Greeks fought Nazi Germany and suffered from its brief occupation while the Jews were the primary victims also must be borne in mind as a coalescing factor. (Turkey, on the other hand, was neutral until the very end of World War II.)
Politically, Greece has much less influence over the Arab states than Turkey. Like them, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim state even though its constitution advocates secularism in governmental as well as social affairs. Ankara’s ruling Islamic party, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, even aspires to reassert the regional hegemony enjoyed by the old Ottoman Empire, at least insofar as foreign policy is concerned.
However, the Greeks have several advantages. Their country is a longtime member of the European Union, a multi-national body in which Israel is vitally interested in joining if given the opportunity.
Greece also serves as a discreet intermediary for Israel’s unpublicized exports to the Arab states.
There also is a profound Greek religious interest and involvement in the Holy Land.
The Greek Orthodox Church is one of Israel’s major landowners. Its possessions include churches and monasteries throughout the country, especially in Jerusalem where its prelates granted the pre-state Zionists permission to build Jerusalem’s attractive Rehavia Quarter on land adjacent to the Monastery of the Cross. And thousands of Greek Orthodox pilgrims flock to Israel annually for Christmas and Easter on the dates designated by the Greek religious calendar.
Actually, an Israeli swing away from Turkey toward Greece, spurred on by Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric and behavior, especially since the May 31 seizure of a Gaza-bound flotilla by the Israeli navy and the death of nine Turkish passengers on board one of the ships, could backfire.
It already has undermined Ankara’s ability to act as a regional mediator between Israel and Syria, prompting grave warnings from the United States that military equipment sought by the Turkish armed forces may be withheld.
The recent developments also threw Turkey out of step with the international effort to deter Iran from expanding its nuclear development program.
Inevitably, Greece will act in its own best interests. And if these include upgrading its military and business links with Israel (whose burgeoning economy also could help Athens solve its financial problems,) so be it.
That is, unless Greek public opinion stands in the way.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)