NOT ONLY INTERESTS MAKE GOOD FRIENDS:
ΣΆΒΒΑΤΟ, 27 ΑΥΓΟΎΣΤΟΥ 2011
Dr. Shlomo Shpiro
(Deputy Head of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He has been closely cooperating with Greek academics for almost two decades)
An old proverb in the Middle East says that necessity makes good friends. It could not have been better illustrated as in the case of the Greek-Israeli relations, which are now seeing both countries move closer than ever before. But the recent closeness is not only a matter of changing regional interests – it is also the result of generational changes which transcend old animosities and bring together cold political realities with cultural and historical heritage.
Greek-Israeli relations are on the move. These relations have rarely been the subject of political debate or academic discussion since, for many years, they were almost at an axiom. Traditionally, Greek governments of past decades pointed a cold shoulder towards Israel while making overtures towards Israel’s enemies, principally the PLO and Syria. However, those old animosities are receding into the realm of diplomatic history, to be replaced by determination, on both sides, to open a new chapter in Greek-Israeli relations unlike anything in the past. Last week, the visit of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in Israel marked a historical new peak in bilateral relations. PM Papandreou was accompanied by a high level governmental delegation which enabled intensive and fruitful discussions on a wide range of topics, some of them away from the media’s prying eyes.
Many analysts contend that the recent marked improvement in Greek-Israeli bilateral relations stems predominantly from the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, which recently reached their lowest level ever, following vitriolic Turkish governmental accusations against Israel and the rapprochement between Turkey and Iran. But in reality, the improvement in Greek-Israeli relations already began several years ago, as both countries are faced with the painful realities of regional terrorism and of common security interests. Indeed, last week Greek PM Papandreou intimated to journalists that he has been thinking of forging closer ties with Israel for about two years. Grim realization over Turkey’s recent political turn towards re-emphasizing its Islamic identity, coupled with the declining role of the Turkish military as societal stabilizer, were disturbing news to both the Israeli and the Greek governments. The covert security cooperation between both countries, mostly kept in the shadows by both governments, is turning into a key element in regional stability. An unspoken but almost tangible alliance is slowly forming between the military and security establishments of both countries, both of which are very concerned by the possibility of Turkish provocations or even aggression. Many senior Greek military officials are concerned that budget cuts may all but cripple Greek military capabilities. Joint deterrence, even implied, is needed against potential Turkish provocations, whether in the Aegean or on the coast off Gaza. But Turkey’s ambitions are only one side of the Greek-Israeli security cooperation. Both countries are faced with severe threats from radical Islamic groups, some of whom make use of Greece’s relative permeable borders in the Balkans to smuggle people and arms into the European Union. Indeed, this year for the first time in decades, the number of people killed by terrorists in Greece is higher than that in Israel, placing Greece on the forefront of European efforts against terrorism.
On the other side of security are economics. Perhaps more than any other Europeans, Israelis are very sensitive to Greece’s current economic plight. Both countries are small, in relation to their neighbors, and depend above all on human capital for the success of their respective economies. In February 2010 Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, told a group of experts, including the author, about his visit to Greece, where he met with top Greek officials. One senior official explained the urgent need to repay an outstanding debt of 300 million Euros. “Do not repay it now” exclaimed Peres, “invest this money into education and research, and in 5 years it will become tenfold!”. This response typifies Israeli reaction to Greece’s crisis, which generally rejects the imposition of harsh external controls over Greek economy, preferring instead to increase government spending on research and education as a long term way of enhancing Greek human capital and its regional competitive advantage.
The political, diplomatic and economic window of opportunity opened for Greece and Israel is a unique chance to bring Greek-Israeli relations to the forefront and give them their ‘natural’ place in the foreign policy of both nations. It could not come about without the generational change in both countries, which moves away from traditional animosities and strives for better relations based on common values, traditions and hopes. The Greek and the Jewish nations enjoyed long periods of close interaction in their four thousand years of history. Many young Israelis want to meet Greek people, to visit Greek cities and feel a close empathy to the Greek nation and its heritage. Many young Greeks want to move away from the rigid anti-Israeli policies of previous governments and move closer to the only other western democracy in the Eastern Mediterranean, where they see openness, friendship and a genuine will for peace backed by the willingness to undertake painful political compromises. Both governments must follow words with action and bring the two countries closer together, not only for the benefit of both nations but for the region as a whole.