Sunburned tourists and fighter jets: The Israel-Greece alliance

Vaccinated Israeli tourists are now allowed to sun themselves on Greek beaches thanks to a COVID-19 green card agreed on by leaders in Athens and Tel Aviv.

As the holidaymakers make their way across the Mediterranean another group will be as well: Israeli defence contractors.

They are working on a $1.68bn project awarded to Israel’s Elbit Systems last year to build and operate a new air force training school in Kalamata, Greece.

Together, the defence ties and tourist flows symbolise an emerging partnership between Greece and Israel that is taking root under the backdrop of Jerusalem’s rapprochement with Arab neighbours and a more assertive Turkish foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Since the late 2000s our relationship has progressed with leaps and bounds,” Dimitris Kairidis, a politician with Greece’s governing New Democracy Party, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, echoed those sentiments. As a deputy national security adviser in Israel from 2009 to 2015, he played a role in advocating for stronger ties between the two countries.

Tourists enter the departure lounge of the airport of Heraklion, on the island of Crete, Greece [File: Stefanos Rapanis/Reuters]

Israel and Greece, along with neighbouring Cyprus, established the tripartite framework in 2016 under which the three countries engage in regular high-level summits each year in Nicosia.

One of the original goals of the tripartite was to advance the EastMed Gas Pipeline.

The project is designed to carry Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe through waters disputed with Turkey. Lerman said the relationship has moved beyond this.

“It is no longer just about gas,” he told Al Jazeera. “If you look at the text coming out of the tripartite statements the agenda is very broad.”

Energy ministers of the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding in March to lay an undersea cable, the EuroAsia Interconnector, linking the energy grids of Cyprus and Israel with the European continent.

Promoting tourism in the region is another area where the Mediterranean neighbours seek to cooperate. The speed with which Greece and Cyprus rolled out a vaccine green card with Israel demonstrates this priority.

Kairidis told Al Jazeera the cooperation between these countries represents the “emergence of a new region” whose “countries can work together in a competitive world shifting to regional power blocs”.

Water and gas

If cooperation between Israel and Greece seems obvious now that is because it was very much lacking in the past.

“The Eastern Mediterranean is much more than a place we go to for a swim, but we did not think of it in terms of a strategic community,” Lerman said.

In 1990 Greece was the last European Union country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

One reason for this was the closest thing Israel had to a strategic community was with the only other nearby, non-Arab state, Turkey.

According to Amikam Nachmani, a specialist in Eastern Mediterranean studies at Bar Ilan University, “Greco-Israeli relations were second to relations with the Turks.”

At one point in time, Nachmani said, Turkey had de facto veto power over Israeli arms sales to Greece and enjoyed the full support of the Jewish lobby in Washington, DC, which “practically maintained good relations between us and the Turks”.

Many analysts point to the Mavi Marmara attack in 2010 as the turning point in the relationship. Israeli forces killed 10 Turkish citizens trying to break the country’s blockade of Gaza.

Nachmani said ties had been fraying for years before that as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention more towards the Middle East and away from Europe.

Cyprus, Greece, France, Britain, Israel, Germany and the US participated in exercises in May 2019 in the Eastern Mediterranean [Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP]

Lerman said from Israel’s perspective, Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions changed after the Mavi Marmara incident and Arab Spring. This caused Israel to reassess the nature of their ties.

As Turkey transformed under Erdogan, the Eastern Mediterranean changed as well. Energy deposits were discovered. Cyprus, Israel and Egypt developed the Aphrodite, Leviathan and Zohr gas fields.

Israel also tapped into the sea to solve one of its greatest challenges: water security.

The largest desalination plants in the world are today located on the country’s Mediterranean coast. Water from these plants is transferred to the Sea of Galilee providing for more than half the country’s clean water needs.

A recent oil spill that damaged Israel’s coastline, and subsequent accusations of sabotage by Iran, reinforce the value of the Mediterranean for the country’s water supply and security.

“During the last 20 years, the importance of the East Mediterranean for Israel has increased enormously,” Nachmani said.

Greece and Israel are united by their shared concern over Erdogan’s actions, Kairidis added. “Turkey thinks it has grown stronger and wants to take advantage of this by projecting its power in a region that has been destabilised.

“No country can or will recognise Turkey as the regional hegemon. Unless Turkey backtracks there will be tension and escalation with all the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in February [Menahem Kahana via Reuters]

‘Mighty war machine’

While Israel’s difficult relations with Turkey may be linked to Erdogan’s ascent, Greece’s rivalry goes back centuries to the Ottoman era.

Erdogan’s claim that Greek islands do not have exclusive economic zones and his questioning of World War I-era treaties demarcating the two countries’ borders have escalated tensions.

This is one reason Greece is eager to partner with its Mediterranean neighbour.

Antonia Dimou, of the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analysis, called Greece’s decision to go with Elbit Systems on the international flight training school “very strategic”.

“Greece is well-positioned to serve as a centre for military training with Israel and other regional powers,” she told Al Jazeera.

The mountainous terrain in Greece is already used by Israeli forces for training because of its similarity with Lebanon.

Dimou said later this year Greece will host Emirati and Israeli troops for their first-ever public joint-land exercises.

“What we have now with Israel and countries like Cyprus, France and the UAE is a multinational partnership,” she said.

Greece practised anti-submarine drills and port protection in March with these countries during Israel’s Noble Dina military exercises.

The country first replaced Turkey in these drills following the Mavi Marmara attack, and is now a regular participant.

When it is stripped of the high-profile summits and well-publicised military drills, there are some in Athens who question what has really been achieved with this new partnership.

Sotiris Roussos is a former senior adviser with the Greek foreign ministry and currently serves as head of the Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Peloponnese.

He told Al Jazeera he is not opposed to closer ties with Israel, but asked what tangible benefits Greece has to show for it.

“If I had $1.6bn for a defence deal, I would rather put it into R&D [research and development] for our national technical universities to develop defence systems,” he said. “Greece is already recognised for having some of the best pilots in NATO. What we really need is a transfer of technology with Israel.”

Athens may have been eager to sign the defence deal because it believes Israel presents a strong deterrent to Turkey. “We expect the mighty Israeli war machine will come save us.”

Asked about the extent of Israel’s support for Greece, Lerman said it is clear how far it is willing to go.

“We lend support in intelligence and training. If it comes to it, we will not be there to fight Turkey but we will do everything short of that,” he stated.

For Greece, Turkey is a threat located on land and sea borders. Although Israel is concerned by many of Erdogan’s actions, its main focus remains Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Syria and Lebanon.

These priorities actually led to both Turkey and Israel supporting Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last year.

Public opinion in staunchly Orthodox-Christian Greece sided heavily with Armenia.

Greek fighter jets fly over Athens during a military parade marking the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence in March [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

A different kind of tourist

“It’s a complex relationship,” Lerman said of Israel’s ties with Ankara. “We know there are many in Turkey who harbour different sentiments than Erdogan and we try to stay open for a change in Turkey’s orientation.”

Turkey is a big country. It is a G20 member with an educated population of 83 million and the second-largest army in NATO.

Faced recently with a collapsing currency and the threat of EU sanctions, Erdogan has attempted to reset relations with Israel such as appointing a new ambassador.

Economic and trade ties between the two countries have outlasted the deteriorating political relations.

In 2019 Turkey was Israel’s sixth-largest trade partner. The two countries had a total trade balance of $5.5bn that year. Turkey is a major exporter of food goods and iron to Israel.

But a subtle shift has occurred under the surface, one that, in terms of economics, tilts in Greece’s favour.

‘A pipe dream’

Those who are eager to look for signs of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement point to the number of tourists visiting Turkey from Israel as proof of the strong people-to-people relations that still exist.

Visitors in 2019 reached more than 500,000. This puts numbers back at pre-Mavi Marmara levels. But 70 to 90 percent of these tourists are estimated to be Israeli-Arabs.

“The Israeli-Jewish mainstream has shifted to Greece,” Lerman said.

Israelis are becoming big buyers in Greece’s second home market – ironically enough in places such as Crete and Rhodes, the very islands Turkey is locked in maritime disputes with Greece over.

Tourism contributes to nearly 20 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product (GDP) and Tel Aviv is only a two-hour flight from Athens.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visits The Righteous Among the Nations Memorial at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem [File: Heidi Levine via Reuters]

While the growth in Israeli homebuyers and visitors will strengthen ties, it is still a long way to go from the grand statements coming from Greek and Israeli leaders.

The EastMed Gas Pipeline is the most high-profile project planned between the countries and it has stalled.

“The EastMed Pipeline is a pipe dream,” Roussos, who has been a longtime sceptic of the plan, told Al Jazeera.

Gulf states are already preparing for a world of long term energy price declines. The United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalise relations with Israel was, in part, driven by a desire to diversify its own economy towards technology and away from energy.

The Middle East of 2021 may not need more pipelines.

“The pipeline has received much support politically. But when it comes to the feasibility, technically speaking it presents a prime challenge,” Dimou said.

Israel recently announced plans to build a more cost-effective line linking its gas fields to Egypt’s liquefaction facilities.

Roussos said these plans effectively mean Israel has backed away from the EastMed Pipeline in its current form. “It’s actually the rational thing for Israel to do.”

In this way, Israel’s new relationship with Greece is emblematic of the wider challenge for states in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

How to move relationships centred on security or energy cooperation to those based on economic integration, high-end manufacturing, and technology that create opportunities for citizens in a post-COVID-19 world.

‘Scars of the economic crisis’

Israel normalised relations with Egypt and Jordan decades ago.

It has since carved out a dynamic economy and became a world leader in startups and technology. But for many reasons, Israel’s neighbours have regressed economically and youth unemployment is rampant.

Greece and neighbouring Cyprus are EU member states and different from Jordan and Egypt. But they too face the challenge of creating jobs and fending off a brain drain of young educated people.

The countries still bear the scars of the economic crisis and now their tourism-dependent economies will take years to recover from COVID-19.

“This relationship is not one dimensional. We want to develop it on all fronts,” Kairidis said.

There is much room for cooperation, he added. “Israeli agriculture is several times more productive than the Greek. There are also fields where Greece is ahead like shipping and tourism.”

The future test for Greek-Israeli ties may not be Erdogan, but moving the relationship beyond him.

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