Amidst global turmoil, with Ankara seeking to lure away key regional players, the Greece-Israel partnership is a pillar of effective regional strategy.
Three events in recent weeks point to the importance of Greek-Israeli relations: the signing of a major deal whereby Israel will train the Hellenic Air Force; the participation (again) of the IAF in the international Iniochos air exercise; and a meeting in Paphos of the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and the UAE.
This activity comes alongside growing uncertainty about global and regional events – making it more important for like-minded nations to stand together and coordinate their responses.
On April 16, 2021, the Greek Ministry of Defense officially signed an agreement with Elbit Systems, a leading Israeli defense contractor, for a comprehensive training package for the Hellenic Air Force, including Italian M-346 training aircraft, Israeli avionics, and an array of flight simulators closely modeled on Israel’s own training system. Evaluated at more than $1.6 billion over 20 years, this contract is unprecedented in scope and its strategic implications. Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, Israel’s Minister of Defense and Alternate Prime Minister noted that the understandings reached with his Greek counterpart Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos highlight the growing interaction between the Israeli and Hellenic armed forces.
The same can be said about the participation of elements of the IAF (including F-15i and F-16 jets and transport aircraft) in the major cooperative air tactics exercise of the Hellenic Air Force, called Iniochos, in April 2021 at the Andravida AFB (alongside participants from the US, France, UAE, Spain, Cyprus, and Canada). The Israel Air Force (IAF) has been participating in this exercise 2015 (when the only other Air Force invited was the USAF). The UAE has participated since 2017. The willingness of the UAE in 2017-2019 to train alongside the IAF was to some extent a sign of things to come.
This should be viewed in the context of other recent military cooperation exercises between Greece and armed forces, such as the (mainly naval) MEDUSA 2020, in November-December last year, in which Egypt, UAE, Cyprus, and France participated. All together, these constitute the building blocks of a strategic alignment clearly aimed at facing various dangers to regional stability in the eastern Mediterranean.
In the same spirit, the Foreign Minister of Israel and former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi met his Greek and Cypriot colleagues, Nikos Dendias and Nikos Christiodoulides, as well as former UAE Foreign Minister M Anwar Gargash in a newly established strategic forum in Paphos, Cyprus, to discuss a range of issues threatening regional stability. (The current Emirati foreign minister, ‘Abdallah Bin Zayd al-Nahyan, took part virtually.) Thus, the “Abraham Accords” were once again linked to the commonality of interests in the eastern Mediterranean (alongside a shared perception of the Iranian threat).
There are obvious gains here for Israel. The IAF benefits from the opportunity to train in new and unfamiliar landscapes. Most significant of all is the strengthening of ties among the partners of what may be described as the “Abu Dhabi to Paris” chain of like-minded nations, with the partnership of Israel and Greece playing a central role.
For strategic, diplomatic, military, economic, social, and even cultural reasons, this relationship has become a priority for Greece. (A leading Greek MP, Prof. Dimitris Keridis, said so explicitly in the wake of President Biden’s victory in the US.) In Israel, these developments should be viewed in the same light.
The need for close coordination is made more urgent given Turkey’s predicament and the intensive efforts of Turkish President Erdogan to extricate himself from a tough situation. Ankara faces a distinct chill in its relations with Washington. President Biden’s first conversation with Erdogan was over the US decision to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, a highly loaded issue for Turkey. In response to this dramatic shift away from Trump’s often (over-) friendly attitude to Turkey, Turkish diplomacy is seeking to break apart the like-minded coalition in the region. This explains Turkey’s recent indications of some thaw in ties with Israel, reduction of tensions over Libya, a possible reset with Egypt (after years of open hostility towards President al-Sisi), and Turkish courting of the Saudis (who are dismayed with Biden’s policies in Yemen).
At this delicate point in time, Israel’s interest is not to close the door on possible dialogue with Turkey, but to make it very clear that in such a dialogue the needs (and fears) of Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt should be on the table alongside Israel’s concerns. Turkish support for Moslem Brotherhood subversion (including Hamas activities and incitement in Jerusalem) must cease. The map of the EEZ in the Mediterranean perhaps can be redrawn, but only if Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, and Cypriot interests will be respected, including unhampered access, by pipeline or otherwise, to European markets. Therefore, Greek and Egyptian efforts (backed by France) to ensure that Libya does not become a strategic adjunct of Turkish policy need to be supported. If Turkey wishes to retrieve lost ground in Washington, it needs to take these positions into account.
To sustain this position, it is important for participants of the “Paphos Forum” to act in close coordination. The immediate challenge is to counter, from a position of strength, Erdogan’s attempts to shatter the alignment of forces developed in recent years.
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