It’s never really been determined where the proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” originated. In a way, it’s fitting we don’t know because it’s a philosophy that has been applied throughout time and across the world. Many people feel that Greece’s rapprochement with Israel over the past few weeks, culminating in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Athens this week, shows that this age-old proverb still has relevance today.
There is no doubt that relations between the two countries have come a long way in a very short period of time. It was only in the 1980s that Israel viewed Andreas Papandreou’s Greece as a rogue state that gave succor to Palestinian terrorism and Arab radicalism. Papandreou had aligned himself with the Arab world when many in his PASOK party felt that Greece should play a leading role in the Third World, creating a new force that could spring up between the communist East and capitalist West. He also believed that by currying favor with the Arabs, he could ensure their support in his dealings with Turkey and perhaps convince them to invest in Greece.
It is ironic that Papandreou’s son, George, should now attempt to follow a dramatically different course, one that runs between the Arabs and Israelis rather than veering to one side. Of course, he does so in an environment that is nothing like the one experienced by his father. There are no eastern and western blocs now: The pieces on the geopolitical chessboard are in constant movement. Also, Turkey is now the region’s big player – when it talks, the Arabs listen, not the other way round. And, as far as foreign investments go, the weak presence of Arab capital in Greece never seemed to merit sacrificing the country’s foreign policy. Attempting to lure the Chinese yuan rather than Arab petrodollars appears to offer far greater rewards.
So, in brutal, realpolitik terms, it seems to make perfect sense for Greece to upgrade its relations with Israel and continue a process of reconciliation that began tentatively in the 1990s. But, by reaching across to Israel, Papandreou runs counter to a strong anti-Israeli, and in some cases anti-Semitic, current in Greek society. Israel is still regarded with suspicion and anger by many Greeks who view the Palestinians as their spiritual kin. Israel’s decision at the end of May to board six ships, two of which were Greek, carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza – leading to nine activists being killed and 35 Greeks arrested and deported amid claims of abuse – fed rage among many Greeks about Israel’s role in the Middle East and rocked relations between Athens and Jerusalem.
So, many find Papandreou’s decision to warm to Israel rather shallow. They are convinced that Greece is only interested in playing its newfound friendship with Netanyahu’s government against Turkey, at a time when Ankara and Jerusalem, who for so long had a flourishing relationship, are failing to see eye-to-eye. There is little doubt that the breakdown in relations between Greece and Turkey has acted as a catalyst for Netanyahu and Papandreou, and that the dividing line between opportunity and opportunism is very thin indeed. However, anyone believing that Turkey would be overly concerned by Greeks and Israelis conducting joint air force exercises or working together to manage their water resources is fooling themselves. Turkey, which is seeking an ever more active role in Iraq and closer ties with Iran, is jostling for position at the bargaining table with the USA and the world’s other major powers, where Greece is far from the biggest chip in the pile.
Rather than a brave piece of triangular diplomacy, Greece’s approach to Israel should be seen as a common-sense move. At a time when so many aspects of international relations are in flux, especially in the broader region around Greece, and when the local economy is being tested like never before, it seems only logical that Athens should aim to have as many friends and as few enemies as possible.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 20, 2010.