Why Greece is Israel’s latest unlikely friend

Israel and Greece have just signed a defence deal worth around £1.2 billion

April 22, 2021 11:29

Summer is coming to the Mediterranean and, with it, the consummation of new friendships. Israel and Greece have just signed a defence deal worth around £1.2 billion. Elbit Systems will establish a training centre for the Hellenic Air Force, supply new training aircraft and the very latest in equipment to Greece’s pilots.

Where politics goes, money invariably follows. And this deal is as much about international relations as it is about cash.

Greece was once proudly anti-Israel. When PASOK took power in 1981 to form Greece’s first socialist government since 1924, it brought with it a worldview steeped in anti-imperialism. Greece, it raged, was a perennial underdog exploited by Great Powers. Greek political discourse swelled with the language of grievance and defiance. Athens was angry.

Nothing encapsulated this trend so much as the annual 17 November March — a procession that takes place each year to commemorate the Athens Polytechnic uprising of November 1973, when students protesting against the Greek military junta began demonstrations that would lead to its eventual downfall.

The day that has lodged in the collective memory is 17 November, when a tank crashed through the Polytechnic gates, marking the beginning of violence that would leave over 20 dead. Washington had supported the junta — a shameful decision that Greeks, understandably and entirely correctly, remember with bitterness. Every year on that date crowds — taking in everyone from Yayas (grandmas) to students to the hard-left and anarchists — march from the Polytechnic in central Athens to the front of the US embassy. There, they proceed to hurl Molotov cocktails, rocks and any sort of missile they can find against the (now shuttered) windows and walls of the embassy. Every year. When I first covered the march about 10 years ago, I remember watching crowds of young Greeks – almost none of whom was alive in the 1970s – carry red flags of the Communist Party while they marched past walls sprayed painted with the hammer and sickle, chanting, “Free, free Palestine!” This, it seemed to me, was what leftist politics in Greece had descended to: an incoherent grab-bag of grievances, reduced to often violent kitsch. But if it was ill-thought out, it continued to dominate.

Then came the 2008 financial crisis: the years of PASOK clientelism and corruption were exposed for the Chimera they were. The economy collapsed; the people suffered.

For a new generation of Greeks, this was the left: not a bloated uncle doling out sweet government jobs with fat pensions, but a movement that had brought them nothing but pain and suffering.

PASOK began to fall, and as it did, Turkey, now with Islamist populist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm, began to rise.

As Erdoğan’s hold on Turkey grew, so did his aggression. The discovery of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean brought Greece, Israel and Cyprus together in a triple alliance. Turkey, out in the cold, became enraged. Its warships now stalk Greek boats in the seas. Its planes regularly violate Greek airspace. Its politicians threaten to invade.

Suddenly, Greeks see Israel not as an overweening oppressor but a fellow democratic state threatened on its borders.

Suddenly, Greeks see Israelis not as colonisers but as fellow underdogs. Suddenly, Greeks see Israeli tech not as a danger but as a means to level the playing field against a far larger neighbour.

The 21st century is dawning in the Mediterranean. Greece and Israel are now firm allies, yoked together to battle new autocratic threats.

The new decade is throwing up new challenges that require not just new security arrangements, but an end to decades of bad thinking.

April 22, 2021 11:29

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