Athens — ``Alone again,'' lamented one Greek opposition newspaper this week. The comment referred to the Athens government's refusal earlier this week to join its European Community (EC) partners in condemning Syria for its alleged role in the attempted bombing of an Israeli airliner in April.
But analysts here agree that Greece, in the words of one observer, is willing ``to take the lumps of being odd man out in the EC'' on this and other issues involving the Arab world. The reason for this, the analysts say, is Greece's fear of losing the support of its Mediterranean neighbors on the one issue that is close to the hearts of all Greeks: the political status of the island of Cyprus. The backdrop to this observation is Greece's record in Middle East relations during the last decade.
As for the EC's decision Monday to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria, a goverment spokesman said Greece's position is ``a matter of principle. We do not want to condemn any given country'' for acts of terrorism. That, he said, was up to the British courts, which implicated Syria in the April bombing attempt at London airport.
This matter of principle, one Western observer says, can be traced to the special role Greece feels it plays as ``a bridge to the Middle East.'' Several Greek administrations have based their stand on:
Greece's proximity to the region.
Its considerable business with the region, as well as the fact that Athens has become a center for hundreds of international firms operating in the Mideast, who pulled out of Beirut after Lebanon's civil war erupted in 1975.
Its historical claim to ``knowing the Arab mind.'' (Egypt was one hub in the Greek diaspora for centuries.)
The ascent of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, in 1981, introduced another ingredient into this policy mix: ideology. Mr. Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement came to power on an anti-imperialist platform that tapped into a healthy vein of Greek national pride.
A symbol for this anti-imperialist platform was the Palestine Liberation Organization. In fact, Papandreou's first major international visitor after his 1981 election victory was PLO leader Yasser Arafat. One of Papandreou's first policy moves was to elevate the PLO representation in Athens from a press office to a diplomatic mission - the same status as Israel had been granted.
It could be argued by critics, that Spain - for these same reasons of geography, history, economics, and ideology - could have voted the same way as Greece at this week's EC meeting in London.
The difference, observers say, would appear to be contention over Cyprus. Since the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence from the predominantly Greek-populated southern two-thirds of the island in 1983, only Turkey has recognized the breakaway state. Greece has garnered Arab support for its position by comparing Turkey's 1974 invasion and subsequent division of Cyprus to Israel's occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
With this comparison as the keystone of its Middle East policy, other Greek actions and statements can be seen as an attempt, as one Western analyst says, ``to prevent the dam from bursting on recognition of the TRNC.'' It is widely held that, after Turkey, the states most likely to grant the TRNC diplomatic recognition would be those considered brethren Islamic countries.
This rationale notwithstanding, the Papandreou government's Middle East relations have raised eyebrows in Washington during the last five years. The prime minister's warm reception of Mr. Arafat was followed by Greek participation in the evacuation of some 1,500 Palestinian fighters from Lebanon in 1982.
Since that time, the June 1985 hijacking of an American jetliner out of Athens and a poor report card on airport security compelled President Reagan himself to issue an advisory against travel to Greece.
In recent months, there has been growing speculation that the PLO was in the process of relocating its headquarters here after having apparently worn out its welcome in Tunisia. The speculation was spurred by the murder of several high-ranking PLO officials in the past few years - two of them since June. A respected Athens daily ran a story to this effect this past summer, but it was quickly denied by the Greek government.
Many observers here also discount the Athens-as-PLO-haven story. The government has stressed that it will not tolerate acts of terrorism within Greece, and the authorities say they are treating the two PLO deaths as they would other murders. (The PLO's immediate claim was that the Israeli secret service, Mossad, was to blame for the latest killing, but a rival faction to Arafat's moderate Al-Fatah wing has claimed responsibility.) Greece has also tightened airport security considerably, and the US travel advisory has been lifted.
Finally, Papandreou has tempered his Middle East policies, just as he has softened his anti-US, anti-NATO, and anti-EC pronouncements and adopted economic austerity measures which formerly were anathema. He has counterbalanced Arab affinities with a thawing of relations with Israel. A number of Greek-Israeli meetings have been held over the last few months, and some observers here say full diplomatic recognition of Israel is simply a matter of timing. This could provide another source of support for Greece on Cyprus.