The risk of ‘high’ politics

Some observers were not happy to see Benjamin Netanyahu in Athens, while others were surprised by the Israeli prime minister’s visit to the Greek capital. They shouldn’t have been: Anyone familiar with the way in which the government of George Papandreou operates should know that from the moment Ankara broke ranks with Israel and distanced itself from Washington’s policy in the Middle East, Athens would only think of rushing to fill the vacuum. Ever since the state of Israel declared its independence in 1948, Athens’s relationship with the Jewish state has been rather ambiguous. Athens offered Israel de facto recognition in a bid to rescue the Greek community in Egypt – until the Greeks there were expelled by Gamal Abdel Nasser. It later stuck with the same policy so as not to lose the backing of Arab states on the Cyprus issue. De jure recognition came with the conservative administration of Constantine Mitsotakis in 1990 without prompting any retaliation from Arab states. In 1995, Israel came up with a proposal for military cooperation. The PASOK government hesitated and Tel Aviv went on to sign a similar deal with Ankara, a move which caused a nervous reaction among Athens officials. Now Papandreou wants to enter the big regional game, which is shaped by the confrontation between the US and Israel on the one hand and Turkey on the other. Papandreou thinks that Greece has something to gain in this local antagonism but this is highly unlikely. First of all, strengthening Greece’s ties with Israel will not have any impact on the Middle East balance of power. The alliance with Turkey gave Israel the necessary strategic depth to face its chief regional foe, Iran. Greece does not carry similar weight. But this lack of weight could turn to our advantage, as Ankara has no reason to take Papandreou’s diplomatic initiative too seriously. Ever since 1922, Greece has not posed a threat for Turkey, having degenerated into a minor annoyance. So, no need to overreact over Netanyahu’s presence in Athens. Instead, officials in Athens should keep in mind that Turkey continues to be our top foreign policy challenge. And it does not make sense to irritate Turkey by engaging in «high» politics.