Among all the consequences of the recent Gaza flotilla crisis is the important gains that have been achieved in Israeli-Greek relations. Greece has played a vital role in preventing the most recent flotilla attempt to “break the blockade of Gaza.” As this latest flotilla saga began, Greece said it would abide by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s advice that all countries discourage the flotilla operatives from sailing.
But Greece took that advice a step further and dealt perhaps the most important blow to the anti-Israel activists: it prevented ships from sailing from its ports, and apprehended some, including a ship captain, who tried to set sail in defiance of Greek orders. It also hindered one ship from sailing following a review of its documents.
Israel’s security blockade of Gaza is vital to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens. Gaza has been a Hamas launch site for attacks on Israelis. Some 10,000 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza onto Israeli civilians in the last decade. This flotilla redux is yet another misguided attempt to embarrass Israel, with little regard for the facts. There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The original flotilla was organized by a group with terrorist ties. Israel gave that flotilla every opportunity to have its shipments inspected for weapons and trucked into Gaza.
Much of Greece’s principled stand can be credited to the strong, personal relationship between Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The intervention seems to be the culmination of the blossoming friendship between these two leaders who, in the last year and a half, have met in person, enjoyed reciprocal visits and held regular phone calls. The personal connection seems to be paying off.
It wasn’t always that way. Greece has long prided itself on its ties to the Arab world, and was among the last countries in Europe to diplomatically recognize Israel. Indeed, in 1982, when Israel routed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the first Lebanon War, Yasser Arafat and his PLO henchman first sailed to Greece before eventually setting up his base in Tunisia.
The Greek Jewish community in Thessaloniki, once home to one of the largest urban Jewish communities in Europe, was decimated by the Holocaust. The community today, numbering some 5,000, is well organized and has become an integral part of the European Jewish scene in the global Jewish village.
Greece has had some home-grown anti-Semitism over the years, much of which went unanswered, or unacknowledged, by state officials. That silence has now been replaced, when incidents occur, by quick responses from government figures at the highest level. Some of this may stem from deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. But if Turkish-Israeli relations remain the same, or even if they were to improve, the Greek-Israeli relationship stands on its own merits.
Accompanying the strong Greek-Israel relationship is the intensifying contact between Greek Americans and American Jews—two of America’s oldest immigrant groups.
A newly established economic zone among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel is also cause for acknowledgment of the enhanced relationship. This Mediterranean partnership—which will begin with the exploration of massive gas fields in the waters between Cyprus and Israel—helps to normalize Israel in the eyes of the world.
The revitalized Israel-Greek relationship is truly most encouraging. Athens recognizes that only through direct negotiations can Israelis and Palestinians reach a settlement. For leading the way on this issue, without equivocation and without apologies, especially during the time of its worst economic crisis, Greece deserves to be singled out for praise. There will surely be other tests ahead; this one was met with sobriety and good common sense.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the International Executive Vice President of, B’nai B’rith.