During 2019, in the good old pre-coronavirus times, more than 700,000 Israelis visited Greece. They were dining in tavernas in the Peloponnese, walking in Vikos, singing along in one of Athens’ bouzouki clubs, buying summer homes on Crete and Lefkada, or visiting Greek industrial partners. Greek and Israeli military forces were holding joint exercises. All that in the friendliest atmosphere. Neither the Israelis nor their Greek hosts realized that this phenomenon of real brotherhood was something that could not always be taken for granted.
On May 21, 1990, Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis recognized the State of Israel de jure, finally establishing full diplomatic relations between Israel and Greece. In fact, it was during his election campaign that Mitsotakis declared that his first act as prime minister would be the signing of the recognition of the State of Israel, which he later did. Through this act, he symbolically put an end to almost four decades of “lost time” in ties between the two old nations.
“As obvious as that decision [to recognize Israel] seems to us now, that was a far cry from the case 28 years ago, because Greek public opinion at the time was staunchly pro-Arab and anti-Israel,” said his son, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the current prime minister of Greece, in a speech to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in 2018.
Indeed, Greek policy toward Israel until that historic decision was mainly dictated by a zero-sum game perception: the need for the Arab world to support Greece on the Cyprus issue and to assure the supply of oil meant cold, low-level relations with Israel.
Supporting the Palestinian cause during the 1980s was reflected in Greece through emotional public support of those interests. But, slowly but surely, this attitude began to fade.
The 1990s brought about the Arab-Israeli peace process and the status of Israel in the world changed. It was the decade of rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, and it looked like Turkey was going to be Israel’s strategic partner. It took Jerusalem and Athens another decade to realize that the zero-sum game rules no longer apply.
Assuming his position as ambassador to Greece in 2003, Ram Aviram thought that the preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games provided an opportunity for the two sides to embark on what would later become a strategic alliance. Israel was asked to be part of the small intimate group which assisted Greece in its anti-terror policy for the security of the Games. In 2005, the first ever visit by a Greek minister of defense to Israel took place. Yet there was some hesitation on the Israeli side in promoting relations with Athens, still hoping not to harm the strategic defense ties between Israel and Turkey. In 2006, when Dora Bakoyannis took over as Greek foreign minister, Israel’s legitimacy was greatly promoted with the first visit by a president of Israel to Greece. The idea of Israeli flags flying in central avenues of Athens during such a visit would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.
At that time, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the leadership of Bakoyannis was particularly active in its attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with initiatives and targeted activities including the participation of Greece, for the first time ever, in the meetings of the Annapolis Conference. What is more, during the Greek Presidency of the United Nations’ Security Council, there was an effort to further discuss the issues at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. During that period, because of the good Greek-Arab relationship, and due to the reinstated good relations with Israel, Greece emerged as a potential honest broker in the region. This period was also marked by the intense efforts of consecutive Greek governments to eradicate public displays of anti-Semitism. A National Holocaust Remembrance Day was established in Greece.
By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, two major tectonic events took place that affected Greek-Israeli relations even further: Anti-Israeli policy became a cornerstone of the policy of the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israel, Cyprus and Greece discovered strategic natural gas fields in the Mediterranean and thought of ways to cooperate in transporting the gas to Europe. Now the time was also ripe for a shift in attitude on the Israeli side, paving the way for flourishing relations. Since 2010, an alliance has been forged between Greece and Israel in all facets of life, created by a deep acknowledgment of converging interests and democratic values. There is communication between the Israeli and Greek prime ministers on a regular basis. Moreover, fruitful cooperation is developing between the Israeli and Greek defense industries, where highly sophisticated systems are moving from Israel to Greece but also in the other direction. There is also multi-partisan support for strong relations between Greece and Israel on the Greek domestic political scene that now includes parties on the Left that have realized the value of good ties with Israel in challenging times for the world and our region. Greek-Israeli relations are no longer a token in Greek domestic party politics.
On a trilateral level, there are frequent leadership summits between Israel, Greece and Cyprus. Strategically, Greece, Israel and Cyprus are working together on all levels from prime ministers to military forces to ensure a variety of common interests in fields such as energy, the environment, culture, innovation and security, among others.
It is no coincidence that at a time when the two countries are considering reopening themselves to the world in the coronavirus era, they are looking at connections between each other as the first priority. It seems that Israel has found its “strategic depth” looking toward the Aegean Sea and Greece has found a reliable partner in an unstable region – this time for many years to come. Indeed, what was begun by Konstantinos Mitsotakis 30 years ago is bearing fruit.
Dora Bakoyannis is former minister of foreign affairs of Greece and Ram Aviram is former ambassador of Israel to Greece.