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The evolution of Israel-Greece ties, from enemies to allies - opinion

All this demonstrates the remarkable resilience of the new Hellenic-Israel partnership. Perhaps next time the Hanukkah candles are lit, we should also celebrate that.

By MARK REGEV Published: JULY 28, 2022

Israel’s multifaceted cooperation with Greece and Cyprus has in recent years become central to the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, not that long ago, ties with our two Hellenic neighbors were anything but healthy. The positive trajectory in these relationships is a relatively new development.

Last month, I was in Athens, at Pantheon University’s Institute of International Relations, attending the Israeli-Hellenic Forum, a trilateral framework that brings together academics and researchers from Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. The Forum, a project of World B’nai Brith, seeks to augment the discourse between the three countries, and, having myself grown up in Melbourne, Australia – the world’s third-largest Greek city – I felt a natural affinity with the subject matter.

Of course, in the classic Jewish tradition, the Hellenists are portrayed as the bad guys. Every year on Hanukkah, Jews commemorate their second century BCE triumph over King Antiochus, who sought to deny the Jewish people its identity and independence.

Throughout the centuries of Jewish diaspora, as the Jews suffered ubiquitous discrimination and persecution, the heroic battles of the ancient Maccabees were a source of nostalgic pride. The Zionist movement incorporated the Jewish revolt against Hellenist rule into its narrative of national rebirth, the victory of antiquity providing inspiration for the modern Jewish struggle for national freedom.

Greece’s cold shoulder

In the 20th century, the enmities of old seemed to be reinforced by contemporary Hellenic hostility, as exemplified by Greece’s icy relationship with the newly created State of Israel.

In November 1947, Greece was the only European country to vote against the UN partition plan that endorsed Jewish statehood. Although Greece formally recognized Israel in 1949, in the following decades, relations remained frosty, as they did between Israel and Cyprus after that country’s independence in 1960.

Various explanations have been offered to understand this Hellenic cold shoulder. It is said that in 1947, during the Greek civil war, Greece’s government was dependent on the then-anti-Zionist British for its survival.

In parallel, Greece did not want to jeopardize its economic ties with the Arab world, nor to endanger the Greek community in Egypt (like the Jews, the Greeks were ultimately forced to leave the country in the years following the Free Officers revolution of 1952).

There was also the ongoing international dispute over Cyprus, which put Athens and Ankara at loggerheads. Greece feared that Arab and Muslim states would automatically line-up behind their coreligionists in Turkey and vote in the UN against Greek interests. Accordingly, instead of pursuing good relations with Israel, Greece adopted positions designed to appease Arab opinion.

Moreover, from the 1970s onward, Greek governments increasingly stressed their solidarity with the Palestinians. This was especially so under Greece’s long serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

In neighboring Cyprus, perhaps influenced by the presence of some 53,000 Holocaust survivors interned on the island by the British, popular sympathy was felt for Israel’s struggle for independence. Nonetheless, official Nicosia tended to echo Athens’s standoffishness. There was even an episode during the Second Intifada when Israel declared Cypriot first lady Androulla Vassiliou persona non grata after she attempted to meet with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Yet, if for decades Jerusalem’s relations with Athens and Nicosia were on the far negative end of the European spectrum, this problematic reality was to change dramatically.

A meeting at Café Pushkin

Although there had already been tentative improvements, the inflection point in the relationship was a chance meeting in February 2010, when then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow for meetings with the Russian leadership. Greek prime minister George Papandreou (son of Andreas) was coincidently also there for similar meetings, and the two leaders came across each other accidentally at Moscow’s upmarket Café Pushkin.

Papandreou, dining there with his wife Ada, sent a bottle of wine over to the table where Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu were sitting. The Netanyahus responded by inviting the Papandreou couple to join them. The two American-educated prime ministers quickly found a rapport, deciding then and there that the time was ripe to upgrade the Israel-Greece relationship.

It was not just idle dinner chat; from that moment, relations raced forward at breakneck speed. In the months that followed, Papandreou visited Jerusalem and Netanyahu visited Athens. And in 2012, Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Nicosia.

Relations boomed as areas of cooperation multiplied to include defense, homeland security, trade, investment, tourism, infrastructure, environment, emergency services and energy.

The latter area is of growing importance. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has decided to lower its dependence on Russian energy. This has created new opportunities for the joint export of Israeli and Cypriot offshore natural gas.

Greece and Cyprus are also EU members, and Israel has been interested in finding European friends to help balance the Brussels bureaucracy’s more critical approach. As smaller EU states, neither Greece nor Cyprus appears willing to take the lead in defending Israel, but they are more open than before towards aligning themselves with the pro-Israel initiatives of other larger states.

The Ottoman shadow

Undoubtedly, Israeli-Hellenic ties have been affected by the behavior of Ankara’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose neo-Ottomanism and political Islam have exasperated Turkey’s neighbors and brought them closer together.

Of late, Turkey has been striving to improve its relations with regional players, the invitation to President Isaac Herzog to visit Ankara earlier this year is an indication of Erdogan’s desire for rapprochement with Israel.

The scope and pace of any improvement in Israeli-Turkish ties remains uncertain. What is clear is that the newly found partnerships between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are here to stay.

Some believe that a threat to relations could come from an unexpected political victory for the radical Left in the coming Cypriot elections. Yet, in this context, Greece provides a reassuring example.

When, in the 2015 Greek election, Alexis Tsipras and his militantly socialist Syriza Party assumed power, there were initial fears that a Corbynist-Melenchonist type anti-Israelism could undermine ties. But not only did the Athens-Jerusalem relationship continue to flourish under Tsipras, it also expanded to include a strengthened trilateral framework with Cyprus. And Israel’s ties with Greece continued to prosper after the election in 2019 of the moderate-right New Democracy Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

All this demonstrates the remarkable resilience of the new Hellenic-Israel partnership. Perhaps next time the Hanukkah candles are lit, we should also celebrate that.

Published Originally in The Jerusalem Post

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