Recent developments underscore the remarkable trajectory of ties between Greece and Israel.
First, there was the quadrilateral summit in Paphos, also involving Cyprus and United Arab Emirates. Historic would not be an overstatement in describing this gathering, as it reflects the strategic results of last year’s Abraham Accords and connects the Eastern Mediterranean with the Arabian Gulf. Moreover, it would not be surprising to see other regional actors seeking to join this group in the future.
Second, the two countries just announced a large defense deal, indeed the biggest ever between Athens and Jerusalem. Needless to say, it didn’t come out of nowhere, but rather was the result of ever growing strategic and military cooperation — and the trust it bespeaks.
What may seem obvious today about overlapping interests and values between Greece and Israel was anything but obvious forty years ago, when I first became interested in the relationship.
At the time, I was shocked to learn that bilateral ties were quite frigid, to the point where Greece and Spain were the only two West European countries that had not established full de jure relations with Israel. And when Spain finally did so in 1986, Greece became the lone holdout.
It made no sense to me. Sure, I heard that Greece was closely tied to the Arab world and feared it would lose its standing if it also connected with Israel, but the argument didn’t hold water. Other West European nations were able to successfully juggle their ties with both sides of the political equation. Meanwhile, of course, Egypt and Israel had signed a peace deal in 1979.
Rather, I was a believer in what Winston Churchill had seen years earlier. The legendary British leader said: “No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding lights of modern faith and culture. Centuries of foreign rule and indescribable, endless oppression leave them still living, active communities and forces in the modern world, quarrelling among themselves with insatiable vivacity. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”
How could it be that two democratic countries, sharing the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and with so many overlapping features, were estranged from one another, I asked. And I wasn’t alone. A number of Hellenic American leaders, led by the late Andrew Athens, and American Jewish Committee (AJC) representatives, led by the late Maynard Wishner, asked the very same question and, joined by several Members of Congress, resolved to do something about it. But it wouldn’t prove to be quick and easy.
In 1986, I was asked to prepare a memo for Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou on a Jewish perspective of Greek foreign policy. I noted the absence of full diplomatic ties, the close friendship with Syria and the PLO, the weakness in dealing with terrorism, a largely hostile voting record at the UN, and the fact that no Greek foreign minister had ever traveled to Israel since 1948. The overall assessment, in other words, was pretty bleak.
But within five years, things began to change dramatically. A new prime minister, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, and his foreign minister, Antonis Samaras, established full links with Israel and changed the overall tone.
Encouraging as that was, a question lingered: Would the upswing in the relationship survive the inevitable political pendulum swings in Athens?
It wouldn’t take long to find out. Andreas Papandreou returned to power in 1993. Given the fall of the Soviet Union, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and an increasingly assertive Turkey, his hard-line views mellowed, as we were to discover in our own meetings with him.
And by now, in 2021, after many twists and turns in Greece’s governments, the verdict is in. Leaders of various, and often disparate, parties have come to embrace fully the ties with Israel, recognizing they form a pillar of Greek foreign policy and, at the same time, do not negatively affect links with the Arab world.
Today, it’s clear that relations between Athens and Jerusalem are blossoming in every sector. Putting the pandemic aside, tourism is booming. And visitors say they feel very much at home in each other’s country. Political and strategic dialogues are now the norm. High-level summits take place regularly. Cooperation in new technologies and energy are expanding rapidly. The devastating legacy of World War II continues to impact both nations. The Jewish community in Greece and the Greek Jews who resettled in Israel form a bridge across the sea. The list goes on.
Some say this is really all about Turkey. Sure, Turkey looms large in the geopolitical thinking of both countries. But, let’s be clear, the main driver is not Turkey. Rather, it is the belated recognition that Greece and Israel have vast potential, as two neighbors and two Western-oriented democracies, to develop their links in just about every sphere. In doing so, they serve the highest interests of both nations.
And, to return to Churchill’s theme, I, too, am on the side of both and couldn’t be happier with the burgeoning ties. This is indeed another reminder that history is not static. In the span of four decades, this relationship went from detached to full-blown, with, no doubt, more to come.