Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party head Alexis Tsipras
Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party head Alexis TsiprasReuters

Israeli-Greek relations have never been better. Turkey’s pressure on Greek-speaking Cyprus over natural gas drilling has pushed both the Cypriots and the Greeks into an unprecedented defense and economic relationship with Jerusalem. But the relationship could be challenged by Greece’s new far-left government.

After the Syriza party was elected, there was speculation in Israel that their Middle East policy could shift. It was a number of Syriza activists last summer who led demonstrations against Operation Protective Edge. Additionally, the party is composed of a number of extremely pro-Palestinian politicians. But other factors have impacted whatever influence those views might have had in reversing Greece’s growing relationship with Israel.

Arutz Sheva spoke to Ambassador Arye Mekel, former Israeli Ambassador to Greece and currently a researcher for the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who explained that "Syriza is an alliance of 14 smaller far-left factions. One Deputy Minister even participated in one of the flotillas to Gaza."

Turkey Eclipses the Palestinians

Greece is very close to Cyprus, the Greek-speaking island nation also sitting on the same batch of natural gas fields as Israel. But the island is divided; in 1974, Turkey invaded and occupied the northern half of the island and created a separate enclave for the Turks that moved there.

Turkey’s claims that some gas fields belong to Northern Cyprus, a "state" whose independence only Turkey recognizes, threatens Cyprus’ ability to extract natural gas from the Mediterranean. With that in the background and relations between Israel and Turkey in the cold, Israel and Greece have expanded their military relationship.

Thanks to the inclusion of the right-wing ANEL party in the coalition, whatever fear people have had Syriza might roll back ties with Jerusalem has been alleviated.

At the end of February, ANEL’s party leader Panos Kammenos announced plans for new joint military exercises with Israel and Cyprus.

Kammenos said in February: "Defense planning should take into account friends and allies which seek defense cooperation in the region. And I clearly I mean eastward toward Israel."

Still, Ambassador Mekel did not see the tensions with Turkey as an overarching problem for Greece.

“There was a semi-crisis when the Cypriots found some gas and refused to share it with the Turkish Cypriots. The Turks sent warships to the area, but in the end it amounted to nothing and the Cypriots continued their drilling.”

“Kammenos himself is well known to us. Kammenos has always been friendly with us (Israel), especially some years ago when he was a Deputy Minister for Shipping when we had some problems in that area.”

“This past summer we stationed for the first time a military attaché, a Colonel, in Athens. I don’t see any deterioration any time soon.”

He did not address Kammenos’ comments that recent Turkish exploratory missions off the shore of Cyprus were the main motivation for the new exercises and whether or not they actually were significant to provoke the new exercises. What seems to matter more is that for Kammenos they certainly do matter.

Three-way Economic Agreements

Still, there is plenty of economic cooperation on energy that binds Israel and Greece. There has been talk of mutual drilling projects, pipelines and expansion of infrastructure in other areas linking Israel, Greece and Cyprus. One of them is the laying of a new 2,000-megawatt underwater cable that will link Cyprus’ and Israel’s electrical grids to each other and to Europe. The defense relationship is directly related to Turkey’s threats to cease gas fields from Cyprus on behalf of Northern Cyprus.

Israel signed a tentative understanding with Greece on natural gas back in 2011, but delays in the Israeli courts have kept that understanding from becoming a full-fledged agreement. A December 2014 decision by the commissioner of Israel’s Anti-Trust Authority to break up the cartel controlling the Leviathan gas field had caused stocks in Israel to plunge. When asked if that news had sent a ripple through Greece and upset the earlier understanding between the two countries, the Ambassador did not see it as agitating Greece.

“Right now there is no harm that can come because there is nothing to harm.”

“There was something very general that was signed. Uzi Landau signed something with the Greeks but it remained on paper.”

He emphasized that the discussions between Israel and Greece have continued for years, but the details have not been outlined in any type of major trade deal or treaty.

“The entire gas saga is not going anywhere for the time being. No one in Israel has decided how much to export, what to export and to whom to export and by what channels.”

“We had visits from Uzi Landau who was the Minister of Energy and then Silvan Shalom who later became Minister of Energy. I arranged for him a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister but no conclusions came of it. It was a subject of discussions, including when the Greek government held a G2G – government-to-government – meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu with his ministers.”

Going Forward

Tomorrow night, Ambassador Mekel will join a panel with author Dr. Aristotle Tziampiris to promote the launch of the doctor’s new book on Israeli-Greek relations. He says that for both Dr. Tziampiris and himself, their research has been impacted by the sudden change in government.

“The professor just published a book on Greek-Israeli relations over the last four years. Ironically the government collapsed just as it was coming out.”

With a hint for his optimism that the new Greek government will not be the trouble that some Israelis worried about, Ambassador Mekel said with a chuckle laugh that he was "inconvenienced" by the sudden change in Athens.

“I have been writing my own research on the topic right now. My plan until recently was to write only about the last four years – the great era. Then the government collapsed and Syriza came to power. Now I have to write a whole new chapter about the current government.”