Back in the 1950s, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion adopted what came to be known as the "Peripheral (or Peripheries) Policy" regarding Israel and the Middle East.
In 1948 the surrounding Arab states had invaded the newborn Jewish state. In the latter stages of that war and in its immediate aftermath, Israel tried to make peace with them on the basis of the post-war territorial status quo. But Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and the other Arab states beyond, and their societies, refused to agree to peace principally because they continued to oppose a Jewish state, whatever its territorial configuration.
So Ben-Gurion, to reinforce Israel's security and political standing, resolved to reach out to and forge alliances with the region's non-Arab or non-Islamic states and groups, including Iran and Turkey, and the Druse of Syria, the Kurds of Iraq, the Christians and animists of southern Sudan, and the Maronites of Lebanon. These states and groups, on the "periphery" of the Muslim Arab world, all had conflicts with Muslim Arab states and groups, making them enemies of Israel's enemies. Often in the following decades, Israel supplied these peripheral states and groups with military, political and intelligence support.
Here lay the origin of the Israeli-Turkish relationship. In 1949 Turkey, with a tradition of bad relations with the Arabs, was the only Muslim country to extend de jure recognition to the State of Israel and in the 1990s the ties burgeoned into a special relationship, with full diplomatic relations and hefty defense ties running into billions of dollars annually (Israel refurbished Turkey's armored fleet and jets and supplied that country with drones and other equipment, and Turkey made its air space available to Israel Air Force exercises).
The rise of the Islamist government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the massive growth of the Turkish economy resulted in a radical reshaping of Turkey's foreign policy. While still officially a member of NATO and while still officially seeking membership in the EU, the country has steadily distanced itself from the West (in 2003 Turkey famously prohibited the launching of an Allied assault from the north in the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the chances of the EU accepting Turkey as a full member are today almost nil). This distancing has included a steady erosion of Turkey's ties with Israel (but not to the point of formally severing diplomatic relations) a steady growth of its ties, political and economic, with Syria and Iran and very public patronage of the Palestinian national cause.
This was the background to the dispatch last year, from Turkish harbors, of the first "humanitarian aid flotilla" to the Gaza Strip, besieged by Israel since its 2007 takeover by the Islamist Hamas Party. The flotilla tried to break the naval blockade of Gaza's coastline and Israeli naval units responded by boarding the boats. On the flotilla's "flagship," the "Mavi Marmara," the Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists who had attacked them with crowbars, knives and bottles. The Turkish government, which had unofficially orchestrated the flotilla operation, withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest.
A second flotilla, largely based this time in Greek ports, was due to set sail last week for Gaza, but most of the boats remain in harbor and it is not clear at the moment whether the flotilla will ever set out.
In part, this is due to mechanical failures on at least two of the boats (the Irish and Swedish components of the flotilla), which an Irish activists’ spokesman was quick to attribute to Israeli saboteurs. In the case of the Irish boat, the Turkish government announced that there was no sabotage by external elements.
But the chief reason for the hold-up or cancellation of the flotilla is undoubtedly the realignment of political forces in the Eastern Mediterranean during the past year or two. Last week the Greek Government officially prohibited the boats from sailing to Gaza and proposed that the cargo of food and medicine they intended to convey be transferred to Greek government ships, which would offload the cargo in Ashdod, Israel, or El Arish, Egypt, for eventual trans-shipment to Gaza. Indeed, the Greek coast guard even chased after an American vessel, "The Audacity of Hope," that set sail from Piraeus without permission and forced it to return to Greece after arresting its captain.
Over the past year, Netanyahu, extending, as it were, Ben-Gurion's Peripheral Policy, possibly with some assistance from Washington (which is unhappy with the turn Turkey has taken in recent years), initiated this realignment, with Israeli interest and favor shifting from Ankara to Athens. Israeli-Greek relations, traditionally extremely cool—Greece was the only European democracy to have voted with the Arabs in 1947 against the UN General Assembly partition resolution, which endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state, and Greece only established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1990—have now warmed considerably, with Netanyahu and Georgios Papandreu exchanging visits last year and with Israeli tourism to Greece rising from 100,000 in 2009 to 250,000 in 2010 (the Israelis who commonly sojourned in vast numbers in Turkey now boycott that country). Israeli-Greek military cooperation and joint exercises have similarly increased.
Without doubt, the current, deep Greek economic crisis, in which Greece needs support from Washington and Western investments, is also playing a part in the improved Greek-Israeli relationship as is the prospect of Israel turning in the coming decade into a major natural gas exporter, following the recent discovery of vast natural gas fields off the Israeli coastline. Greece's "friendship" with the Arabs during the past sixty years was largely a function of its need for Arab oil.