The relationship between Israel and Greece at this time can be described as a love affair. After a long period of cool relations, accompanied by harsh criticism of Israel, a new era has begun under the leadership of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. The reason for the rapprochement, and for the warm Israeli ties with Cyprus as well, has to do with the grave crisis in Israel-Turkey ties – with Ankara being a longtime rival of the two island states.
The love affair pertains to almost every aspect. Israeli tourists who abandoned Turkish resorts discovered Greece and saved the locals from the damages of the grave economic crisis. Meanwhile, Israeli and Greek gunships engaged in a joint maneuver last week, possibly as a hint to Turkish PM Erdogan, who put an end to such Israeli-Turkish cooperation. On another front, talks are underway on a future gas pipelines from Israel to Europe that would pass through Greece.
In recent weeks, Greek media outlets have reported at length about the dramatic improvement in ties between the two countries. A Greek military source said that Israel is mostly interested in aviation cooperation, while the Greeks expected to receive defense technologies and embark on joint projects to develop defense systems.
In August, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Greece as PM Papandreou's guest, and last week a senior Greek delegation visited Israel in order to identify areas for cooperation. In an unusual move, delegation members met with PM Netanyahu, as well as other senior officials.
In another development highlighting the current idyll, Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas landed in Israel Sunday for a two-day visit. Among other things, he was expected to sign a new aviation cooperation agreement with his counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman.
Ties between the two nations were never cold and have been conflict-free, despite their long history, Droutsas told Yedioth Ahronoth in a special interview, adding that the current Greek government intends to bolster the renewed tied further.
When asked if Turkey should be concerned, Droutsas said that the cooperation between Jerusalem and Athens would never go against any other nation. On the contrary, he said, "One of the main parameters here is to stabilize the entire region. The Middle East is of vital interest for Greece." Athens, he added, wishes to cultivate peaceful and neighborly relations in the region, which could only benefit its prosperity.
Israel and Greece share political, economic, cultural and defense ties, he continued, and also to create strategic ties which would span all areas equally. "One thing is very clear – Israel is a pioneering nation when it comes to high-tech and we would be thrilled if such cooperation proved fruitful."
A multitude of ventures. Droutsas and Lieberman (Photo: AP)
As for the rumored Israeli-Greek gas line, Droutsas said that energy, in any form, is of great significance to Greece and Europe, and naturally – for Israel as well. Nevertheless, he qualified, it is still too early to discuss specific plans.
The Greek economy has been slowly recovering from one of the worst recessions in its history, and the gradual process – and underlying potential – has not escaped the attention of Israeli investors, who are eying Greek investments. According to Droutsas, the biggest potential currently lies in the tourism and renewable energy industries and the government in doing its best to attract foreign investors.
The deepening crisis between Israel and Turkey had a resounding effect on the Turkish tourism industry, as tension between the two leading Israelis to practically abandon their once-favorite vacation destination, in favor of nearby Greece.
"There is a very impressive 60% growth in tourism from Israel. If in 2009 155,000 Israelis visited us, in 2010, so far, we've had over 250,000. We are delighted and flattered that Israelis prefer Greece now, and we hope it will not be a fleeting phenomenon, but one that keeps growing," Droutsas said.
Greece's beauty, he added, is one that takes a lifetime to experience. "Israelis should know that we welcome them. We want to cultivate these ties, because a touristic link is also a cultural one between our people," he said.
'We understand Israel's concerns'
But what about Turkey's new affinity to Iran? According to the Greek FM, while naturally, every nation is free to prioritize policies as it sees fit, Greece's foreign policy focuses on two avenues: pursuing a set of values and principles which promote stability, and participating in formulating European Union policies, in a way which would bolster the EU's international standing and position. "Turkey's position on Iran does not coincide with that of the EU," Droutsas said – a point that cannot be taken lightly considering that Ankara wants to become a member nation.
Greece, he added, supports the EU's position that every peaceful way to resolve the Iranian problem should be exhausted. "We are truly concerned by the fact that no such progress has been made. Things today are perilous."
When asked where Athens stands on the issue of Gaza-bound flotillas – especially in view of recent report that it had prevented such sails from leaving its shores, Droutsas treads carefully: "Greece understands Israel's legitimate security concerns perfectly. Simultaneously, we understand the humanitarian problems in Gaza. Israel's decision on mitigations was a step in the right direction, but the difficult situation in Gaza does not contribute to the peace process."
Gaza's frustration, he continued, "Pushed parts of the Palestinian people to the extreme and fuels the fires of radical groups, which in turn has various implications on Israel's security. The situation has prompted Greece and Cyprus to promote an initiative which may ease the flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip."
Greek public opinion of Israel, however, is less forgiving, but Droutsas believes that can be changed.
"Strengthening the ties between our countries reflects a sentiment shared by both nations...the harsh humanitarian situation in Gaza and the perpetuation of the Palestinian problem harm Israel's international image, not just its image in Greece.
"That is why I feel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to pursue peace talks with Mahmou Abbas is so important. Both leaders deserve our support. They must develop mutual trust that would enable them to resolve the situation."
Droutsas also believes that the differences between Israelis and Greeks are minute.
"We have so much in common, in all aspects of life," he said. To illustrate, he points out that he has no idea how it is that the many successful Greek-style Israeli singers, such as iconic singer Yehuda Poliker, have yet to become mega-stars in Greece.
"I wish my visit had started on a Friday – I missed the chance to see Poliker at the Zapa Club in Tel Aviv," he said.
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