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In an opinion piece for The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune (and JNS), B’nai B’rith International CEO Dan Mariaschin analyzes Israel’s relationship with Greece and how the relationship between the two nations is weathering its first crisis post-Oct. 7.

Read the op-ed in The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, and read at JNS.org.

On September 1, 1982, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat stepped off the Greek cruise liner Atlantis, which had ferried him and some of his inner circle from Beirut to a marina just south of Athens, exiled by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon earlier that year. He was warmly welcomed on the dock by Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and some of his Socialist Party colleagues. Sailors in a Greek naval honor guard stood at attention as Arafat and Papandreou walked side by side on their way to a luncheon in the Palestinian’s honor.

Prime Minister Andreas Papandreaou gave a brief statement to the press: “We welcome with great emotion the great fighter for the cause of the lost fatherland and freedom of his people.”

This warm greeting of Israel’s foe came as no surprise. In November 1947, Greece had been the only European country to vote against the UN partition plan that created both a Jewish and an Arab state. For decades after, it reliably supported the Arab camp on issues affecting the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the time, there were extensive Greek communities in Arab cities, where Greek merchants were part of the middle class and contributed to economic ties with those countries. But the Greeks in Alexandria, Cairo, Benghazi and Khartoum were gradually forced to leave. By 1990, Greece became the last European country (other than the former Yugoslav republics and Albania) to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, under Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, father of the current prime minister.

For its first half century, Israel had a far more important relationship – politically, economically and militarily – with Turkey than with Greece.

The Israel-Greece relationship has changed dramatically since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1990. The story goes that a chance meeting in 2010 between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (son of Andreas) at a Moscow hotel, propelled by good personal chemistry, led to a turnabout in the official Greek worldview of Israel and its place in the Eastern Mediterranean neighborhood.

Behind the personal chemistry of two leaders lie five economic, political and security factors that have nudged relations to another level.

First, Israeli-Turkish relations began to sour, most dramatically as a result of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.

Second, potential natural gas partnerships emerged. Talks are ongoing about exporting Israeli natural gas via a short pipeline to a power station in Cyprus that would be connected with Greece and Europe by undersea electricity cable. Meanwhile, an Anglo-Greek corporation, Energean, acquired in late 2016 full ownership of two of Israel’s offshore gas fields (Karish and Tanin), as part of the Israeli government policy of diversifying ownership of Israel’s offshore gas assets. Production in Karish began in October 2022.

Third, other economic interests followed suit. Two-way trade is now at four times its level in the 1990s (Greek exports to Israel in 2023 were at $710 million, with imports from Israel at $660 million in 2022). Israelis invest in Greek real estate, and in recent years also in the emerging high-tech sector; and with many Israelis no longer feeling welcome in Turkey, Greece became a favored destination for those seeking a short, sunny vacation not far from home.

Fourth, the published trade statistics do not include Israel’s military exports, which grew apace in recent years. In April 2021, an Israeli military technology corporation, Elbit, signed a $1.6 billion 20-year contract to train the Hellenic Air Force – one of many military-to-military links. The Israeli Air Force has since 2015 joined the annual multinational Iniochos exercise in Greece; Israeli long-range training flights shifted from Turkey to Greece; and the Greek navy participates alongside Israel in US-led exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Fifth, on the diplomatic level, a series of bilateral andtrilateral consultations that include Cyprus emerged began in January 2016 (nine in all, so far), in parallel with similar summits of the two Hellenic partners with Egypt. Moreover, the US was added into a 3+1 forum of foreign ministers; and in April 2021, the foreign ministers of the three were joined, in the wake of the Abraham Accords, by the UAE in the “Paphos Forum” meeting in Cyprus.

The Hellenic and Jewish diasporas, too, began to feel the warm winds of change, with joint projects by American-based organizations promoting stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, focused on support for the trilateral summits of leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. Other examples of collaboration have emerged, involving journalists, academics, and think tank scholars from the three countries.

This background of gradual warming sets the stage for the Greek response to the events of October 7.

Within days of the Hamas massacres, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the atrocities and visited Israel, coming, he said, “not just as an ally, but as a true friend.” He said that Greece “defended and supported the right of Israel to defend itself in line with international law,” telling Netanyahu and the Israeli people, “you can count on our support and our help.”

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou stated that the Hamas atrocities amounted to war crimes, hosted Israeli hostage families in Athens and endorsed the “Bring Them Home” movement.

Greece was not the only country to support Israel’s right to self-defense in those first few weeks of the military campaign in Gaza. But as the fighting wore on, the early and unequivocal European support began to slip.

Mitsotakis’s stance mirrored a number of his European counterparts. On November 9, he said in an interview with Politico that, speaking “as a friend of Israel” while there was no question that although Israel had the right to defend itself, “how it does actually matters, and it matters considerably.” He was concerned about “proportionality” in its response to the Hamas attacks. Israel’s allies, he stated, “must speak hard truths” about its “aggressive” military campaign in Gaza.

In an interview in January at the Davos World Economic Forum, Mitsotakis again supported Israel’s right to defend itself but caveated that, “we are increasingly concerned about the plight of innocent people in the Gaza Strip.” He went on to say that Greece was deeply involved in creating humanitarian corridors and other means for aid to be delivered. “We are considered to be honest brokers. We talk to everyone.”

The prime minister’s careful wording reflects Greek public opinion. One early poll in the Greek City Times had over 65% of those responding saying Greece should remain neutral in the fighting. 18% held pro-Israel views, and 11.5% said Greece should support the Palestinians.

The new Hellenic-Israel relationship is therefore weathering its first crisis. The early visit of Mitsotakis to Jerusalem was an indicator of how far Greece had moved in its partnership with Israel, with which it has vital shared interests. That said, it should not have come as a complete surprise that Athens has stepped back from its unequivocal support of the early days of the war, as has much of Europe, albeit in a more muted and less abrupt way than Spain and Belgium.

In one important respect during the current war, the relationships with Greece and Cyprus delivered a tangible benefit for Israel. As many international shipping companies and airlines chose to avoid Israel’s ports and airports, the national assets – Zim and El-Al, privately owned but subject to a degree of governmental control – kept the nation’s lifelines open by using Greece and Cyprus for logistical backup. Thus, in October 2023, El Al and other Israeli carriers added flights to Athens (and Larnaca) to enable stranded Israelis to come home; and in March 2024 a senior delegation of Israel’s Ministry of Transport held talks in Cyprus about the construction of an Israeli-controlled port facility in Larnaca, that would serve as a backup for emergencies such as an attack on Haifa – in parallel with the role of Cyprus in supporting humanitarian supplies to Gaza. This reliance on Greece and Cyprus in wartime was envisioned early on by the architects of the tripartite alignment.

Thus, I’m wagering that on “the day after,” the shared interests will correct the diplomatic course to where things were on October 6. The economic and security stakes are simply too high for these ties to go into reverse.