Greece-Israel: the new strategy
Greece seems to be turning a new leaf in its –until recently- stable relations with the Middle East. This is made clear by the reciprocal visits of Prime Ministers George Papandreou and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Greece respectively, during the summer of 2010.
On its part, Israel redefines its strategic relations by turning to Greece and the Balkans in general, after the rupture of relations with Turkey. The traditional enemies of the Turkish state can prove valuable allies for Israel.
Turkey’s change of attitude towards the Jewish state came at a very critical time for the latter. Israel will be deprived of many privileges, such as the use of Turkish airspace for the exercises of its Air Forces. Moreover, it will lose billions of dollars which it used to gain annually from the provision of weapons to Turkey, now that the latter has turned to the European and Russian markets.
Therefore, Tel Aviv is required to compensate for its losses. It is in this framework that the military cooperation between Greece and Israel, carried out in two parts, takes place. The first one concerns the conduct of joint exercises in the Greek airspace and the second one concerns the cooperation in the defence sector: the defence industry and the joint development of defensive programs.
Israel needs Athens FIR for the training of its pilots, since it is a small country with no area to conduct flights that require covering long distances. However, Israeli exercises take another dimension given the Iranian threat and the pronounced scenarios about Israel bombing Iran.
Up to date, the Greek-Israeli military relations were limited to the 'Glorious Spartan’ exercise, in 2008, and ‘Minoas’, in 2010. The first one became internationally known when The New York Times revealed the flight of Israeli fighter aircrafts in the Greek airspace which triggered the scenarios for it being a rehearsal for the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities. The Israeli aircrafts flew to the firing range of Kranea in Thessaly, which is the same distance as between Israel and the Iranian uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.
The second exercise, "Minoas", which took place in May 2010 in the Aegean Sea, was halted by Athens due to the Israeli attack on the convoy to Gaza. Nevertheless, the first part had already been completed. Following discussions between the two parties, the second part of the exercises took place in mid-October 2010.
Apart from Greece, Bulgaria and Romania have conceded their airspace for the training of Israeli pilots while the intention to cooperate in this field has been expressed by Serbia, Montenegro, FYROM and Croatia. However, the Greek-Israeli approach takes yet another dimension. Tel Aviv aims at the natural gas deposits detected in the Eastern Mediterranean. The time of the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Athens was not random, since in August, just before Netanyahu's visit, the “Leviathan” deposit had been discovered in the sea area between Cyprus and Israel that is believed to contain 453 billion cubic meters of natural gas. "Leviathan" is much larger than the cluster of the Tamar deposits, discovered in January 2009, 35 km south of the Lebanese territorial waters in the disputed zone between Lebanon and Israel, which reportedly extends to Cypriot waters.
Here is where Greece comes in, since Israel has proposed to the Greek government to act as a hub for the transport of gas to Europe. After this discovery began the scenarios for the replacement of Russian natural gas by the Israelis. These scenarios run in the realm of fantasy, as there is no comparison in the volume of gas reserves of the two countries. The mining of “Leviathan’s” deposits will begin in 2011, with the investigations and the licensing being handled by the American Noble Group, in association with Israeli companies. It is certain that such a project would significantly boost Israel which falls short of energy sources.
Furthermore, in December 2010, Cyprus and Israel signed an agreement demarcating their maritime borders and delineating an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between them in order to facilitate gas exploration. Cyprus has signed similar agreements with Lebanon and Egypt. The Israel- Cyprus agreement opens the road to search for energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean and enforces Israel to secure a large share of the 'Eastern Mediterranean pie'.
Meanwhile, the prime ministers of the two countries agreed to form a joint ministerial council in order to boost Greek- Israeli cooperation in specific sectors such as tourism, energy, security, technological research and agriculture. The first meeting will be held within the next two months at the latest. On account of this decision Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Greece in mid January. This is the first time in 15 years that an Israeli Foreign Minister has visited Greece. Lieberman met the political leadership of Greece in order to discuss ways of broadening cooperation between the two countries as well as the Exclusive Economic Zone delimitation issue.
For its part, Greece aims at financial aid from Israel through the influx of Israeli tourists. In 2010, 250,000 Israeli tourists visited Greece; 200% more than last year, a number that the Israeli side intends to double next year. Finally, Greece wants to approach the Jewish lobby, aiming at its help on issues of national interest (Cyprus), as the latter strongly influences the decisions of the United States.
The Middle East has dominated the international political scene for decades. The Palestinian problem, the Gulf War, the civil war in Iraq, and the nuclear program of Iran are only some of the conflicts in the region which constantly bring it to the foreground of global events.
Nowadays, Iran is more than ever the centre of interest, both at a regional and an international level. In the summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), held from December 3rd-5th in Abu Dhabi, the Arab countries stressed that they are looking at the nuclear ambitions of Iran with great concern.
Meanwhile, on December 6th in Geneva, the discussions between the permanent members of the Security Council of the UN and between Germany and Iranian officials concerning Iran’s nuclear program were completed. However, President Ahmadinejad’s policy stands firm as long as the sanctions imposed on his country are not lifted. The discussions were completed without any tangible results; finally, both sides decided to meet again in late January in Istanbul.
The UN Security Council has imposed strict sanctions on Iran for its controversial nuclear program with a series of decisions, which totally number four since 2006 (1737/2006, 1747/2007, 1803/2008, 1929/2010), while the EU’s trade with the country is restricted.
Lately, Iran seems to follow a policy of isolation while its stance raises concern among its neighbours. The majority of the Gulf countries fear the creation of a nuclear Shiite regime in Teheran that will support Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas’ in the Palestinian territories and the Shiite communities in the Gulf countries. On the other hand, the fear of Iran has been present in Israel from the past. Israel’s greatest concern was and will always be its safety; thus the formation of a Muslim state with a nuclear program in its neighbourhood is, by definition, a major threat.
Greece, on the other hand, is in good terms with Iran. The latter is an important trading partner of the former since it is its main supplier of oil with 65% of the imported oil coming from Iran. As an EU member, Greece has been asked to take action against the Islamic Republic of Iran in the context of the sanctions imposed on it. Nevertheless, in February 2008, Greece was among the countries that declined the proposal of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands for the imposition of even stiffer penalties on Iran. Moreover, Greece along with Cyprus and Malta refused to expand UN sanctions against Iran’s shipping lines, fearing that such an action would influence the revenue of Greek ports. However, the stricter sanctions adopted by the EU on July 26, 2010, had the full consent of Athens, a fact that currently brings Greece and Israel closer together.
The new alliances in the Middle East 
Recently, what we have witnessed in the Middle East is an approach between Iran-Turkey and Syria. The new dynamic formation in the region is of great concern to Israel and the West, since a new pole is being formed; one with remarkable strategic force that can greatly influence developments in the region.
The new scene began to form after the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey tried to play a leading role in the troubled Middle East by taking careful steps which include the desire to undertake a mediatory role between Syria and Israel on one side, and Iran and the West on the other. In the process, however, relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated. This began after the Israeli attack against Gaza, which happened without prior notification towards Turkey in December 2008.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, during his visit to Ankara (shortly before the conference in Davos) did not reveal to the Turkish Prime Minister the hit that the Israelis were preparing against Hamas in Gaza. During this visit, Erdogan mediated talks between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. But a week after Turkish mediation, the Israeli operations in Gaza began. Therefore, Turkey considered the Israeli action to undermine its mediation efforts. Under no circumstances could the Assad regime negotiate with Israel while Gaza was being bombed, since such an action would rouse the Arab world. Meanwhile, Turkey took a stand against Israel with its famous attack to Shimon Peres during the Davos Conference and by expressing its opposition to Israel's attack on Gaza, thereby earning the respect of its allies. However, the final blow for the two countries’ relations was the Israeli attack to the "Freedom Flotilla" bound for Gaza and sailing under a Turkish flag in international waters. The attack cost the lives of nine Turkish citizens aboard the ship “Mavi Marmara”. Since then, the relations between the two countries remain cold.
Therefore Turkey, by turning towards the East, is now seeking to upgrade its role in the Middle East and serve as a link between the Arab world and the US (or the West in general). So, Greece, at this point, is taking advantage of Turkey’s turn to approach Israel. It seeks after the economic gains provided by the influx of Israeli tourists, the strengthening of its position on issues of national interest via the Jewish lobby, as well as the access to high technology which Israel holds. But so far, those are only expectations. This is the reason why Greece should not forget that it also depends largely on Iran for energy. Any challenge towards Tehran’s regime will have financial consequences for Greece and it will also cause the reaction of Turkey. In any case, Greece should pursue its interests by avoiding tensions with the warring parties. It must keep safe distances, maintain the balance and probably adopt a more neutral stance.
 “Steam Ahead the military cooperation of Greece with Israel», Kathimerini, (10/11/10) (Accessed on November 15, 2010) http://news.kathimerini.gr/4dcgi/_w_articles_ell_2_10/11/2010_421853 (in greek)
 Loukas Dimakas, “Flirting in the shade of… Half Moon”, Ta Nea, (17/8/10) (Accessed on November 15, 2010) http://www.tanea.gr/default.asp?pid=2&ct=1&artId=4589482. (in greek)
 Avi Bar- Eli, “Netanyahou offers natural gas to Greece”, Haaretz, (29/8/10), (Accessed on December 6, 2010) http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/business/netanyahu-offers-natural-gas-to-greece-1.310761
 Walid Khadduri, “Oil in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2010”, Dar al Hayat, (31/10/10) (Accessed on December 8, 2010) http://www.daralhayat.com/portalarticlendah/198177
 The agreement with Lebanon has been signed but not yet ratified from the Lebanese Parliament.
 “Cyprus and Israel sign deal demarcating sea borders”, Haaretz, (17/12/10) (Accessed on January 24, 2011) http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/cyprus-and-israel-sign-deal-demarcating-sea-borders-1.331160
 “Greece, Israel agree to set up joint ministerial council”, Today’s Zaman, (Accessed on January 24, 2011) http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action;jsessionid=86F2594FFCC0B64762BBCE9B7956EFAB?newsId=232311
 European Commission, Bilateral relations - Trade: Iran, (Accessed on December 10, 2010) http://ec.europa.eu/trade/creating-opportunities/bilateral-relations/countries/iran/
For further infomartion on the subject see Maria Zaharaki, “The New Triangle in the Middle East”, Simerini, (13/6/10) (Accessed on November 20, 2010) http://www.sigmalive.com/simerini/world/epikairotita/275522. (in greek)
Bushinsky, Jay, “Israel’s new Mediterranean Best Friend”, The Jerusalem Post, (19/8/10), http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=185222.
Lemberg, Izzy, “Israel’s ties with Greece grows as relation with Turkey cools”, CNN, (18/10/10)
Marcus, Jonathan, “Israel woos Greece after rift with Turkey”, BBC, (16/10/10)
Quaraishy, Samira, “Netanyahu fishing for new friends in the Mediterranean”, Middle East Monitor, (20/8/10), http://www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/articles/middle-east/1439-netanyahu-fishing-for-new-friends-inthe-mediterranean
Ozerkan, Fulya, “Israel defends energy exploration deal with Greek Cyprus”, Hurriet Daily News, (20/12/10), http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=israel-has-no-intention-to-back-off-deal-with-greek-cyprus-2010-12-20
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/ ,
Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mfa.gr/www.mfa.gr/el-GR/Policy/Geographic+Regions/Mediterranean-Middle+East/Bilateral+Relations/Israel/
“Greece reassures Arab allies over Israel ties”, Al Arabiya, (18/8/10)
“US, Gulf states put ball in Iran’s court”, Gulf News, (5/12/10)
Semaan, George, “The Gulf between American shields and Iranian challenge”, Dar al Hayat, (8/12/10)
Guzansky, Yoel and Schachet, Jonathan, “Sanctions on Iran: Bark or Bite?”, The Jerusalem Post, (12/7/10)
“Gulf countries “concerned” about Iran”, Al Jazeera, (7/12/10)http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/12/201012714451852661.html