Greece and Israel are two states in the Eastern Mediterranean, a region with many security challenges and fragile balances. The exploration of hydrocarbon reserves within the exclusive economic zones of Israel and Cyprus in recent years has created a new dynamic in the territory, while Greece is part of the bilateral and trilateral collaboration that has been deepened. The ulterior goal is the promotion of regional stability and prosperity.
After the end of World War II Greece pursued a pro-Palestinian policy, without recognizing Israel officially as a country (de jure) and the political elites described Israel as an expansionist state, calling for a fair resolution of the Palestinian issue. The reasoning behind this was the support of the Arab world in the Cyprus conflict and concerns regarding the status of Greek minorities in those countries. With the participation of Greece in the European Economic Community though, things started to change gradually, as it officially recognized Israel in 1990, as proof of convergence with the European policies.
It can be said that Turkey is a source of problems diachronically for Hellenism, as there are several disputes with regard to the flight information region (FIR) and the expansion of territorial waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles. Also, Turkey is opposed to Cypriot efforts to explore for hydrocarbons and considers the aforementioned expansion as “casus belli.” There are also issues related to maritime zones, overflights from the Turkish side and the militarization of the Greek islands. Relations between Turkey and Israel started to deteriorate at the beginning of the last decade, as there was a clash between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos summit during a discussion concerning Gaza. The attack by Israeli commandos against the Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid ship in 2010 was the incident that caused the greatest damage in bilateral relations and it is indicative that Israel did not apologize officially for this action until 2013.
Beginning of a new era
In July 2010, as a continuation of the accidental meeting between the prime ministers of Israel and Greece, George Papandreou became the first Greek premier to visit Israel since 1992. During his talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, he underlined Israeli support in the economic crisis that Greece was facing, while issues of “low politics” were touched upon. Netanyahu visited Greece in August 2010 and highlighted the importance of the existence of a panel that would cover all areas of collaboration and discussed with his Greek counterpart the deepening of defense and economic relations. In this context, Greece is perceived by the Jewish lobby in the US as a useful player in the region as it has converging interests with Israel, while the coordination of Greek and Jewish lobby groups’ actions is seen helping Hellenism significantly. Greece is also becoming part of the processes in the Middle East and could evolve into a channel of communication between Europe and the region.
The first trilateral summit between Greece, Israel and Cyprus took place on January 2016 and should be remembered for the leaders’ decision to create a committee for the planning of a pipeline for the transportation of natural gas from Israel to Europe. In June 2017, Italy became part of this process and a working group for the supervision of the project was established. The agreement over the relevant text was achieved at the Beersheba summit of 2018.
Each country has its own reasons for becoming part of this alignment, as there are converging views on energy affairs and, among the participating states, common perceptions of threat. Additionally, the creation of a pipeline that will transport natural gas from Israel via Cyprus and Greece to Europe is crucial for the continent’s energy security, as it adds to the reduction of dependence on Arab-Muslim and Iranian hydrocarbons, something that is seen positively by the US and the Western world as a whole. What is more, the two last summits (12/2018 and 03/2019) were actively supported by the United States, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, participated in the Jerusalem summit of March 2019.
The Americans back the EastMed pipeline project as they regard it as crucial for the European Union’s energy security and diversification of energy resources and a step toward regional stability. The bill proposed by US senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio in April this year should also be considered as another example of their support for the efforts of Greece, Israel and Cyprus in the territory. As Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in an interview with Kathimerini in January 2018, “We like to say the sky is the limit, but perhaps, as we are neighbors on the Mediterranean, the sea is the limit.”
* This abstract is part of Fotios N. Tegopoulos’ dissertation in MSc in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam with the title “Greece and Israel: A New Emerging Alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean.”