Greek foreign policy is not exactly a textbook example of organization, forethought, and careful assessment of regional and world trends. To be brutally honest, juggling both Turkey and Israel with the same hand is way beyond the Greek diplomatic reach. But there is always room for improvement, especially if one begins to look genuinely for political benefits and controls inane running in circles over obsessions and “bogey theories” of little substance.
Right now, Greece is also at the crossroads. Greek politicians are only too well aware of some of Greece’s larger and more powerful European partners’ reactions to the continuing Greek drumbeat in favor of full Turkish EU membership, an issue that promises rancorous clashes within the Union in the not too distant future. While Turkey is the immovable burden next door, and widely referred to as the number one threat to Greek security, Israel is also seen through the lenses of long-established suspicion, usually for the wrong reasons. This suspicion has dominated every step of the way in bilateral relations, even in the current juncture of improving ties. Greece, for example, quickly pulled its anti-Israel rhetoric from its holster during the IDF’s winter 2009 Operation Cast Lead aimed at the extreme radical, missile-firing Islamic Hamas running the Gaza Strip. In an ironic fashion, rivals Greece and Turkey nicely dovetailed on this particular occasion, both vehemently denouncing Israeli military action against Hamas terrorist militants.
Turkey’s Islamic drift and its telling flirting in an easterly direction, however, have cast the entire play of Greece-Israel-Turkey in a new light. With the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan approvingly talking with such paragons of mainstream democracy as Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Hamas, and with Erdogan’s AK party deliberately dealing small but important blows upon Turkey’s secular regime, Greece needs to do a lot of rethinking very fast. Erdogan’s anti-Western sentiment, still masqueraded, but quite visible to anyone who cares to look closer, promises increasing Turkish distance from its vaunted “pragmatic” posture toward Western nations, not to mention the quite laughable old assertion of Turkey’s cheerleaders, particularly in the US, of that Muslim country forming an impenetrable “rampart” for the NATO alliance and the West in general.
With the “rampart” eroding, if not breached already, Greece’s position becomes a lot less tenable, especially in light of its increasingly questioned “unshakable commitment” to a “European” Turkey that was perhaps never meant to be from the outset. Erdogan’s maneuvering is still too far away from making Turkey an open enemy of the West -- a condition that would require monumental domestic changes over a relatively short period of time -- yet the Turkish PM’s Islamic values are already influencing Turkey’s posture on a range of key strategic issues of the utmost significance to the West including peace in the Middle East, turmoil in the Caucasus, and Iran’s nuclear exploits. To put it simply, the current Turkish predicament is cause for serious concern among Western allies.
Turkey’s flying off on a tangent back to its Muslim roots, and growing anti-West sentiment inside the country, form an excellent opportunity for Greek policymakers to rethink many of Greece’s earlier assumptions on Israel and Greek-Israeli relations.
A good first step would be to recast the whole Israel question in the light of potential partnership rather than cold-shouldered toleration of the Jewish state’s existence. With Turkey shifting the way it does, and with its Balkan neighborhood still restive, Greece’s predicament is slowly acquiring characteristics long familiar to Israel as it stands alone in a sea of resentment and often violent hostility. And Greek policymakers would be making a keen mistake to believe that such changes in the political plate tectonics in Greece’s neighborhood can be effectively managed, somewhat magically, by EU “enlargement” alone. Indeed, in the case of Turkey, EU “enlargement,” with all its demands of changing key features of Turkish society never meant to be touched by majority opinion, seems to be inducing the exact opposite effect than the one desired by the Brussels mandarins.
Carefully managed relations with Israel, backed by a pragmatic sense of mutual interest, could have significant benefits for Greece. In the defense sector alone, Israel is poised, perhaps better than any other country with relations with Greece, to offer invaluable advice and know-how. With Greece experiencing expanding threats from illegal immigration that could also be carrier of “sleeper” Islamic terrorist cells, integrated cooperation between Greek and Israeli authorities could produce significant gains for Greece. Similar effects could be worked out in economic, commercial, cultural, and scientific relations.
For Israel, a more robust relationship with Greece would offer, first and foremost, strategic depth beyond the traditionally restricted space surrounding it. Greece, a full member of the EU, could also form an effective conduit for assisting Israel’s economic and trade relations with the rest of Europe, which are perennially affected by the ebb and flow of thinly-veiled anti-Jewish attitudes among some of Europe’s member countries.
Greece and Israel have very little to lose and much to gain by substantive expansion of their bilateral relations. Turkey’s jumping ship could be the opportunity both sides didn’t have in the past. Once political will, and some realistic thinking, ensue, the results could be surprisingly positive.