Birth of a new alliance
The turn in Turkish-Israeli relations has proved a boon for Balkan states, and Greece, who are falling over themselves to cosy up to Israel, writes Saleh Al-Naami from Gaza
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A Palestinian worker puts finishing touches to a model of the Dome of the Rock in a stone cutting factory in the West Bank village of Kabatyeh near Jenin
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was surprised when his Greek counterpart George Papandreou cut short their meeting at government headquarters in Warsaw last December, asking if he could have a private room to make "important calls" with his cabinet in Athens. When Tusk asked about the emergency, Papandreou's aides told him that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has asked for Greece's assistance in putting out the wildfires ablaze on Mount Carmel surrounding Haifa, and that the Greek premier was keen on sending help.
This is perhaps one of the few times when the leader of a country stopped a meeting with another world leader merely to oversee coordination of assistance to a third country. But the incident demonstrates the immense transformation in the relationship between Israel and Greece, as well as other Balkan states, despite the fact that Greece was the last European country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, in 1992.
Ironically, Greece is the European state that saved Israel from the repercussions of Freedom Flotilla II setting sail towards the shores of Gaza, and blocking a nightmare scenario that Tel Aviv feared -- namely a confrontation between the Israeli navy and activists aboard the vessels. It is a scenario that Netanyahu's government tried to avoid at all cost. The irony is that until very recently, Greece was one of the strongest advocates of Arab causes among European states and supportive of the Palestinian people. In fact, support of Palestinian resistance against occupation was a uniting issue even among sparring political players in Greek politics.
The Greek Socialist Party, Pasok, especially under the leadership of Giorgios Papandreou and Andreas Papendreou -- the incumbent prime minister's grandfather and father, respectively -- who were also prime ministers, was the strongest supporter of the Palestinian cause. The late Palestinian president was a personal friend of Andreas Papandreou.
Since the beginning of June 2010, Israeli- Greek ties were significantly transformed and culminated in a declaration by Papandreou and Netanyahu, during the latter's visit to Athens a few months ago, that the two governments have agreed to cooperate in the fields of intelligence and security. They decided that a joint committee would coordinate strategic cooperation, and to expand cooperation in political and economic fields. This partnership was quickly translated into critical strategic services for Israel, such as allowing the Israeli Air Force to conduct extensive war games over Greek territories. So far, Israel has held two such military exercises, in 2010 and 2011.
The agreement came at a difficult time for Israel, since it loosely followed a decision by Turkey to ban the Israeli Air Force from using Turkish airspace for military exercises in response to the events of Freedom Flotilla I at the end of May 2010. Israel's small geographic size required it to seek Turkey's assistance to hold important air exercises; especially that Israel's leadership at the time was plotting to attack Iranian nuclear facilities as a top option in dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme. In recognition of the importance of ties between the two sides, Israel appointed a veteran diplomat, Arye Mekel, as ambassador in Athens -- he is known in Tel Aviv as one of the best experts on international and diplomatic relations.
Turkey, once one of Israel's closest allies, is the archenemy of Greece, which is why leaders in Tel Aviv and Athens took the opportunity to forge new bonds amongst themselves. The Israelis were looking for alternatives to make up for losses in military cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv, especially air exercises, intelligence cooperation, arms deals, etc. Athens found opportunity in these developments to use its relations with Israel to approach the critical economic crisis overwhelming Greece.
Israel realised the potential of strong ties with Greece and their strategic rewards for the Zionist entity, so it manipulated the hostile history between Turkey and Greece by emphasising the importance of developing relations between Tel Aviv and Athens to confront Turkish "ambitions". Israeli researcher Abirama Golan states that Israeli leaders frequently pointed out to Greek officials what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wrote in his book Strategic Depth as proof of Erdogan's ambition of reincarnating the Ottoman Empire in modern times and with new tools. Also, that Davutoglu's book is proof of the neo-Ottoman attempt to recover the country's former influence.
The Israelis do not hesitate to use historic hostilities rooted in the era when Greece and other Balkan states came under Ottoman rule for hundreds of years. Israeli Ambassador to Bulgaria Noah Gal-Gendler admits that Israel focuses on the historic and cultural background as an incentive to encourage all Balkan states to cooperate with the Zionist entity. It also relies on Islamophobia in Europe to build bonds on new foundations with these countries.
Meanwhile, Papandreou realised that EU assistance would not be enough to save Greece from economic catastrophe, and that it needs to increase foreign investment into the country. His government exerted great efforts to convince foreign firms to invest in Greece, as Israel's leadership scrambled to find a way to prevent Freedom Flotilla II from sailing to Gaza. If Israel were to use military force again to halt the convoy it would further harm Israel's already damaged image on the world stage and also hurt ties with countries whose nationals would be aboard the vessels in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Israel used the Greek economic crisis to serve its own interests. Netanyahu's government consulted with major Jewish organisations in the US to manipulate Greece's dire economic conditions for Tel Aviv's benefit. Netanyahu's office and the leaders of major Jewish organisations in the US agreed that a delegation of organisation representatives would head to Athens to meet with Papandreou, and promise him that these organisations would work on convincing US companies and Jewish businessmen to invest in Greece. In return, Greece would prevent Freedom Flotilla II from sailing from Greek ports. It was a done deal; the Greek government said that its decision to ban the ships from sailing out of its ports was based on Greece's national security.
Washington's official position and that of the UN secretary general that are firmly against Freedom Flotilla II sailing to Gaza also played a role in Greece's decision. Meanwhile, Netanyahu informed Papandreou that Israel could help Greece in overcoming the economic crisis by encouraging hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists to visit Greece instead of Turkey -- a previously favourite destination for Israeli tourists. Netanyahu told Papandreou that there are 400,000 Israelis looking for holiday destinations and suggested promoting joint tourism packages to Tel Aviv and Athens.
One of the reasons why Greece is developing relations with Israel is its need for Washington's support in its conflict with Turkey regarding the future of Cyprus, and its supposition that cooperating with Israel would improve its standing with the US. While the focus has been the dizzying improvement in Greek-Israeli relations, in reality most Balkan states are now very interested in nurturing ties with Israel and are competing amongst themselves to offer the Zionist entity strategic services.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited Israel a few months ago and proposed to Netanyahu that Israel's air force should exercise in Bulgarian airspace. Rather unusually, Borisov also initiated a meeting with the chief of the Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, and offered security and intelligence cooperation with Israel. The Bulgarian prime minister also invited Dagan to visit Sofia and allowed Bulgarian newspapers to publish photos of his meeting with the Mossad official -- unheard of coverage for any Mossad chief's visit to a foreign country. Naturally, Borisov wanted something in return. He asked Israel to help develop Bulgaria's advanced technology industry and receive a percentage of Israeli tourists who had previously travelled to Turkey.
Closer ties between Israel and Greece and Bulgaria are also noticed in Romania, which had preceded Greece in allowing Israel to use its airspace for military exercises. But cooperation ended after an Israeli helicopter exploded over Romania one year ago, killing several Israeli pilots. Meanwhile, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia have also signalled their interest in improving relations with Israel.
It seems likely that Balkan states will support the Israeli-US position in rejecting the request by the Arab League to allow the Palestinian state membership in the UN in September