CHI Circle for Hellas & Israel
No, Anastos, it does not change the fundamentals for Greece.
The question again was asked of me last week in the exclusive Athenian Club, a 3-minute walk from Athens’ Constitution square.
Passed high noon, in sizzling heat, I had to borrow a tie from the building’s guard in order to enter this monument to Athenian society and business. Anastos, an attorney whom I had not seen in three years but ran into him on the club’s 8th floor, begged the question:
“This thing Israel did with Turkey is not going to make a difference; right?” he posed uncertainly. It is a question that I have answered dozens of times among fellow Greeks in Thessaloniki and Athens and in the U.S.
Is the recent rapprochement of Israel with Turkey going to nullify the historic alliance with Greece? “Historic,” because this alliance turned on its head 60 years of Greek relationship with Muslim Middle East.
It is certainly the most important alliance of Greece and Cyprus since joining the EU. For Israel, these two countries are its only natural allies in an Eastern Mediterranean where the Muslim neighbors are sworn to its destruction.
Under certain scenarios, an Israel-Turkey rapprochement could be in Greece’s interest, too. But three fundamental conditions indicate that the first two are not marching to an alliance that would impair Israel’s relations with Greece:
1. Turkey has changed fundamentally as a country in the past decade. In the 21st century it seeks to be perceived differently and acts accordingly;
2. The two key detente players, Erdogan and Netanyahu, do not seem to believe in the rapprochement they entered under U.S. pressure. Turkey continues to threaten Israel strategically;
3. The U.S. has pushed them to improve relations immediately for broader strategic reasons, the political and military conditions in Syria and Iran.
Turkey’s Evolution – A previously secular Turkey is taking a radically different direction, morphing into its own natural identity. It envisions its destiny deeper in political Islam, with an added dose of strong imperialism.
Turks are still paying homage to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey who favored a secular state. However, Kemalism has been replaced with the theocracy of Islam and the imperialism of Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Dovutoglu.
Not that Kemal was remotely tolerant. The Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocides at the start of the 20th century were designed and implemented by Kemal and his armies. His expressed purpose was to create a new country, Turkey, from the remains of an Ottoman empire cleansed of minorities.
Pogroms against Christians in Constantinople continued into the 1950s, and civil, human and minority rights are still heavily trampled. During Turkey’s continuing identity reversal, the military hierarchy has been cleansed of ‘Kemalist’ secularists. There are more writers and journalists in Turkish jails today than in any democratic country.
Today, this reconstituted country of 75 million people – 20 million of whom are autonomy-seeking Kurds – has climbed the economic/military ladder with American support. It has thus been able to ignore a weakened Russia, Turkey’s traditional threat from the North.
This ascendance has inspired a neo-Ottoman imperialism. Turkey seeks to lead heavily Muslim countries in the Balkans, such as Albania and Kosovo, and the Middle East, including territories under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Half-Hearted Rapprochement – Soon after the two leaders concluded the phone call arranged by President Obama, Erdogan announced that he will not send an ambassador back to Israel immediately. He also announced he plans to visit Gaza. Worse, he seeks to try in court Israel’s commandos involved in the incident against the Gaza flotilla.
Such actions plainly say, “I will do what I must for now, but don’t expect changes in Turkish strategy.” These attitudes have been consistent with Erdogan’s philosophy since his days as mayor of Constantinople. He recently equated Zionism with “fascism,” an insult aimed at the heart of Israel.
On its part, Israel announced a cabinet-level government-to-government conference with Greece, and recently held a military exercise with Greece and the U.S. in the Eastern Mediterranean. The World Jewish Congress, which met in Greece last March, highlighted in its newsletter the position that Israel should expect temporary arrangements with Turkey but not a partnership.
U.S. Needs In the Area – Syria and Iran, which border Turkey on the South and East respectively, are the two pre-eminent concerns of the U.S. in the Middle East now. Israel’s interests coincide on both counts.
One concern is to assure that Syria does not deteriorate into a lawless jihadist state. Of related concern are the access of Russian warships and nuclear subs to Syria’s Tartus port base, and the presence of Iran’s navy in the Mediterranean. They may encourage adventurism by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both receivers of Iranian weapons.
The second U.S. concern is Iran’s suspected drive for nuclear weapons. It is Israel ‘s concern, too, as Iran’s government has declared it may use them to attack Israel.
Recent history does not justify any hope that Turkey would allow American or Israeli forces to access Iran through its territory. Turkey could, however, claim ignorance and tolerate overflying aircraft.
Dynamic Greek Option – In view of geostrategic interests, the rise of Turkey’s ambitions, and the existence of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece has a dynamic option: Nourish relations with Israel now and act decisively.
There must not be any ambivalence on where Greece stands on issues involving Israel which is militarily, politically, and technologically the most advanced nation in the region. These policies and actions by Greece can activate a strong, mutually beneficial partnership:
a. Understand the nature of anti-Semitism in the country and fight it effectively.
b. Establish student exchange, tech transfer and common scientific programs with Israeli universities and entrepreneurs.
c. Partner with Israel-connected companies for hydrocarbon exploration and drilling. They have the experience, the know-how, and the means to secure hydrocarbon platforms and pipelines in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
Greece and Israel, already culturally close, must advance beyond concerts and tourism, and make the Eastern Mediterranean sea that connects them a source of lasting prosperity.