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Greece: A Strategic Alternative to Turkey?

INSS Insight No. 201

In less than a month the prime ministers of Israel and Greece exchanged official visits; each visit was the first of its kind. It is hard to find a precedent for this proximity of visits in the annals of Israeli diplomacy.

Until recently the low profile of their bilateral relations suited the interests of both Greece and Israel. While appearing at the Arab Economic Forum on May 20, 2010, George Papandreou noted the friendship between many Arab leaders and his father, then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, and spoke about the solidarity of the Greek nation with Arab nations.

He stipulated, "Israel, must respect United Nations Security Council resolutions. And of course the Arab peace initiative must be promoted. The roadmap obligations must be fulfilled, to move forward on core issues, on the basis of a two-state solution along the 1967 lines."

Flag-Pins-Greece-IsraelThere is little likelihood that the reference to the 1967 lines escaped the Israeli team that prepared for the Greek prime minister's visit to Israel in late July and the Israeli prime minister's visit to Greece this week (August 16-17). But it is also likely that at the same time, they eyed a no less important strategic issue, namely, containing the damage caused by the souring of relations between Israel and Turkey. The shift in Turkey's foreign policy that has led it to draw closer to Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizbollah signals a significant change in the strategic balance, not only from Israel's perspective. Cairo, Amman, Beirut, and Ramallah also see this shift as cause for concern, although perhaps with less severity than Israel. Athens almost certainly is worried by this shift in Turkey's foreign policy, as well as the ramifications of this change and the internal processes in Turkey.

Greece cannot compensate entirely for the damage that was caused by the reversal in Israel-Turkey relations. Its willingness to approve Israeli air force exercises in its air space is an important step and to a large balances the loss of Turkey as a partner for joint exercises. However, it will be difficult to find an alternative to cooperation with Turkey on intelligence. Furthermore, thus far Israeli intelligence has not included Turkey among its intelligence targets. The changes in Turkey will require changes in Israel's intelligence orientation.

In previous years Turkey's size and its geopolitical location made it a major customer for Israel's defense industry. Greece will neither want nor be able to fill this gap, and Israel will be hard pressed to make an inroad into the Greek market, dominated by American and European industries.

Possible strategic cooperation exists in the energy field. The discovery of large amounts of natural gas in the waters between Cyprus and Israel will make these states potential suppliers to Europe. Israel and Cyprus have an interest in bypassing Turkey and shortening the distance between the gas fields and the European consumer. Both its special relations with Cyprus and its location make Greece a critical link in the natural gas route. Egypt and the Palestinians might also join this effort, if natural gas reservoirs are discovered off the coast of Gaza.

Israel has a clear and natural interest in seeking even a partial substitute for its disappointing Turkish partner. The situation affirms yet again the words of Britain's Prime Minister Palmerston, who in 1848 declared in the House of Commons, "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

When he appeared in Jerusalem on July 22 with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Prime Minister Papandreou said, "I have been asked, Mr. Prime Minister, by many here in Jerusalem why I am in Israel today." He answered, "We are neighbors. We live in the same region and we want peace in this region," and, "I have made it a goal to take initiatives," which includes advancing peace in the region. Indeed, on the European landscape Papandreou is a man whose stature exceeds Greece's borders. The informal coalition of states concerned at this time by the Turkish challenge may provide him with an important arena.

Furthermore, tourism can become an additional source of Greek income in the amount of tens of millions of dollars. If Israeli travelers replace Antalya as a major destination with Greece and the Greek islands, this will be a useful source of revenue to an economy that not long ago needed a major financial bailout

Perhaps the neo-Hellenist option does not fully replace the strategic assets lost with the disintegration of the neo-Ottoman option, but it embodies much interesting potential that is well worth cultivating.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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