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Netanyahu fishing for new friends in the Mediterranean

January 26, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took to the seas in search of a new ally in the Mediterranean this week; his anchor’s final resting place was Greece. In his first official visit to Greece since becoming leader in 2009, Netanyahu embarked on a two-day visit to meet with his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, to discuss ways in which they can coordinate and form strategic and military links between the two countries. Given the choice of anchorage, is this another calculated move by Israel to undermine its former best friend in the region, Turkey, even further?

Greece, a long term friend of the Arab world, has only had full diplomatic relations with Israel since 1991, when it formerly recognised it as the “Jewish State”. Prior to Netanyahu’s arrival, Papandreou called his Arab counterparts to inform them of the visit and to reiterate his support and commitment to the Arab states, saying that he would be pushing Israel to move forward with the peace talks. At a joint press conference in Greece, Papandreou expressed a desire for a more active role within the Middle East peace process, a role previously undertaken, of course, by Israel’s most recent ex-close ally Turkey. A new joint committee between Israel and Greece is to be set up to promote “strategic and security cooperation” between the two countries which, according to one Israeli commentator, “will include over-flight rights for the Israel Air Force”.

And yet, perhaps there is a more sinister intention to Netanyahu’s visit; Greece is the historical foe of Israel’s former Mediterranean ally. Relations between Greece and Turkey are, almost by tradition, tense, with the two countries almost going to war several times at the end of the 20th century. Relations have improved in recent decades, especially under Papandreou, who has campaigned actively for Turkey’s accession to the EU. With this in mind, as well as Turkey’s transformation in recent years into a major player in global affairs, Greece would not want to undermine Turkey’s position on the political playing field, but what about Israel?

Commentators have suggested that this is just one of many strategies Israel is adopting to alienate Turkey and perhaps find an alternative ally which would not condemn so readily its abrasive ethnic cleansing and persecution of the Palestinians. This new “anti-Turkey” campaign comes after a volatile year for diplomatic relations between the former allies, which were more or less ended after the Freedom Flotilla incident, when Israeli commandoes murdered nine Turkish citizens on a humanitarian aid convoy. Since then, the Israeli and pro-Zionist hasbara has been working in overdrive to ensure that Turkey’s reputation within the global community is called into question. Israel’s Foreign Minister, the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman, hosted recently the Bosnian-Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, who condemned Turkey openly for “interfering” in Bosnia. Moreover, according to one Israeli commentator, Israel has “undermined Turkey’s ability to act as a regional mediator (between Israel and Syria, for example)”. He goes on to suggest that Israel prompted the US into warning Turkey of the possibility of withholding military arms and  throwing Turkey “out of step with the international effort to deter Iran from expanding its nuclear development programme”, although this was later denied by both the US and Turkey.

However, another more cautious commentator questions whether Netanyahu is foolish enough to cut ties with Turkey altogether. Although Greece is a willing substitute, it does not have the same economical status and strategic advantages to offer Israel. It is going through one of the worst recessions ever to hit the country, so its ability to trade and replace Turkey as an importer of Israeli goods is questionable. Turkey’s rapid rising role in global politics and its influence and relations with key players in the Middle East such as Iran and Syria, as well as its strategic relations with Russia and rising economies such as Brazil and China, makes it an asset that Israel can ill-afford to lose.

Several Israeli analysts have claimed that Netanyahu’s visit was based purely on the desire to strengthen relations with Greece and had nothing to do with any attempts to counter Turkey’s “downgrading” of its relationship with Israel. This attempt by the Jewish state to save face in the global community by making new friends does have a wider dimension, but will besmirching Turkey’s name and pushing it into a corner affect Israel in the long term? Turkey may have made its great escape from the diplomatic fishing nets of Israel, but how long must we wait before Greece is caught between Israel – a disaster waiting to happen – and its commitment to her Arab and Palestinian friends?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.