Athens Meets Israel

Greece can play a valuable part in the Middle East by bringing Israel closer to Europe.

Despite recent economic challenges, Greece still has a constructive role to play—in the Middle East, acting as a bridge between Israel and Europe. Such efforts should be actively facilitated and supported by Washington.

Today, the state of Israel is becoming ever more isolated: it faces an existential threat from a potentially nuclear Iran, relations with Turkey keep deteriorating, the White House seems increasingly critical, and a host of determined enemies such as Hamas and Hezbollah remain powerful.

Such developments will inevitably make Israel act like any individual or country that considers itself secluded. It will become more nervous, less predictable and, ultimately, more dangerous. Without doubt, this would erode regional stability, with possibly adverse international implications.

It is precisely at this juncture that Greece can play a positive role by further improving relations with Israel. Any such improvement should not be viewed as antagonistic to Athens’s traditionally excellent relations with the Arab world, but rather as complementary. Nor would it mean an end to the sympathetic way in which Greeks have viewed the Palestinians during the past few decades.

The pursuit of a strategy that brings Greece and Israel closer actually makes sense from a historical and cultural point of view. The Greeks and the Jewish people share the common bond of being two of only a handful of peoples who can claim a continuous presence for more than three thousand years. Both have long, dramatic and often traumatic histories, with diasporas playing a central role. Throughout the ages, both have made contributions of singular significance to the arts and sciences. It can even be argued that Western civilization is essentially based on two poles, rationalism and faith, often referred to schematically as “Athens” and “Jerusalem” after their cities of origin. As Winston S. Churchill presciently explained, “No two races have set such a mark upon the world. . . . They have survived in spite of all that the world could do against them, and all they could do against themselves.” And today, Greek music and culture are immensely popular with the Israeli public which often covets vacations in Greece.

After the creation of the state of Israel, bilateral relations with Greece were somewhat fraught and ambivalent. However, a slow improvement has been evinced over the past two decades. For example, in 1990 Athens upgraded diplomatic relations from diplomatic representation to embassy level. In February 2006, for the very first time, there was an official visit by Israel’s President to Greece. Revealingly, in November 2009 Greece abstained during the United Nations vote on the Goldstone report that was largely critical of the Israel Defense Forces’ military action in Gaza, a stance that would have been unthinkable for Athens in past years.

More recently (May 2010), a Greek-Israeli air-force exercise codenamed “Minoas 2010” took place. It was cut short after the Gaza flotilla incident. But the incident did not disrupt relations altogether. In July 2010, only a few months after the flotilla events, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou concluded a successful visit to Israel, declaring that “the strengthening of bilateral relations is our steadfast policy.” (An invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Athens was also extended.)

Within this overall positive framework there exists substantial scope for further improvements. On the economic front, bilateral trade has hovered rather modestly at around 300 million euros recently, while Greek investment in Israel has been minimal. Significantly higher levels of cooperation can take place in the fields of agriculture and industrial research and development, where a joint R&D fund has already been envisaged. Large bilateral projects are also possible in construction, telecommunications and tourism.

At the same time, relations between the academic communities of the two countries could intensify through joint research programs, conferences and regular faculty and student exchanges. The relevant ministries, universities and think tanks should coordinate their efforts in order to bring about this new level of cooperation and, inevitably, understanding.

Further mutually beneficial military cooperation on a variety of areas could be explored, perhaps extending to the realm of defense industry. And of course Israel can provide invaluable advice to Greece on issues such as terrorism.

Finally, on a largely symbolic level, Athens can create a legal framework allowing Israeli citizens who can prove descent from the Greek Jews who survived the Holocaust to claim Greek (and hence EU) citizenship. (Similar measures were taken for Greeks residing in former Soviet republics.) Such an action would send a powerful message of inclusion.

By coming closer to Greece, Israel will inevitably come closer to Europe, thus alleviating feelings of seclusion, anti-Semitism and isolation. The results can only be positive and thus deserve transatlantic support.

Aristotle Tziampiris is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus. The views represented herein are his own.