The visit of the Greek prime minister George Papandreou to Israel on July 21-22 has been cautiously greeted as a new beginning in Greek- Israeli relations. Greece has traditionally shunned expanded relations with the Jewish state. In a way, it is an irony of history that the incumbent Greek prime minister took the initiative to pay a visit to Israel: his late father, Andreas Papandreou, was an unabashed friend of the PLO and Yassir Arafat and missed no opportunity, while he was prime minister of Greece, to publicly slam and vilify Israel with complete abandon. It was in December 1981 that Papandreou the Elder granted the PLO equal diplomatic status to that of Israel (but, in the background, even a ‘non-aligned’ firebrand like the old Papandreou was quietly searching for ways to improve ties with Israel, beginning with the signing of bilateral cultural and commercial agreements in 1984).

Today, atmospherics are very different than in the 1980s. Greece is being crushed by an unprecedented economic crisis while its concern over Turkey’s designs in the Aegean is increasing. Israel’s “strategic relationship” with Turkey has all but collapsed, the Middle East peace process is at a deadlock, and Israel faces a resurgent anti-Jewish tendency in many parts of “united” Europe. Both Greece and Israel are beginning to see common ground in broader strategic terms, primarily encompassing the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, but also affecting a range of other issues of common interest, including intelligence and the fight against unorthodox threats.

Some nine months ago, on this page, we said: "Greece and Israel have very little to lose and much to gain by substantive expansion of their bilateral relations. Turkey’s jumping ship could be the opportunity both sides didn’t have in the past. Once political will, and some realistic thinking, ensue, the results could be surprisingly positive.”

This statement has gained added validity since November 2009. Economically, both countries stand to benefit substantially from an expansion of commercial and trade relations. Militarily, Israel is discovering the added value of gaining access to Greece’s air space for training; and Greece is beginning to realize the benefit of learning from Israel’s unparalleled battlefield experience. Culturally, the two countries may be closer than most think. And politically, a strengthened Greek-Israeli relationship can provide new avenues of attempting to break the deadlock over direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Various reports suggest that the initiative behind the Greek PM’s visit to Israel came primarily from Athens. Papandreou himself told Ha’aretz that the visit was in the making “a long time ago” and that he, himself, had it in his mind for about two years. It is no secret that Papandreou has close ties with Jewish friends, some of whom occupy important positions in business and politics both in Israel and elsewhere in the western world. From the point of view of the Greek prime minister, accelerated relations with Israel make good sense across the spectrum, especially now that Turkey’s shooting into an Islamic orbit reshuffles the deck of political-diplomatic cards in the region and creates an opening for some strategic rearrangements that could readily benefit both Athens and Jerusalem.

Israel, on the other hand, needs a friendly conduit at a time of increasing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments that promise further political-diplomatic complications in the future. And it should be also noted that decades of Greece diplomatically cold-shouldering Israel cannot defeat the cultural affinity between Greeks and Israelis, a key factor that is consistently underestimated in discussions about Greek-Israeli relations.

Not long ago, an Israeli observer marveled at how people in both Greece and Israel seem to exist and survive in perennial political turmoil. “If we are both steeped in this school of controlled but creative anarchy,” he said, “we can certainly find common ground in many other important things.”

We cannot agree with him more.


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