Israel's new friend: Why Greece is thwarting Gaza flotilla

Since last year's flotilla debacle killed nine Turkish activists, Israel has cultivated ties with Greece, offering the debt-ridden country generous military aid.

By , Correspondent

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    Activists hold placards on the 'Stefano Chiarini' ship during a protest against the banning of a pro-Palestinian flotilla to depart from Greece, on the Greek island of Corfu July 4, 2011. Greece offered to ferry humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority on Sunday after banning a pro-Palestinian flotilla bound for Gaza from departing from its ports and arresting the captain of one of the boats.
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An unexpected player has come to Israel's aid in thwarting this year's Gaza-bound flotilla: Greece.

It's a country Israel has been courting since a raid on last year's flotilla ended in the death of nine Turkish citizens, severely damaging relations between the Jewish state and one of its most important Mediterranean allies. Desperate for new friends in the region, Israel reached out to Greece, offering generous military assistance to the debt-ridden state.

The fruits of that emerging friendship have been on display over the past week. First, Greek bureaucrats sought to delay the departure of the ships laden with activists and some aid meant to highlight the humanitarian effect of Israel's blockade on Gaza. When the US and Canadian boats finally departed, armed Greek commandos forced them back to shore.

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Now it appears the flotilla is unlikely to sail or else be very tiny – thus exerting little pressure on Israel, which has wielded diplomatic power to greater effect than the military force it displayed last year.

"There seems to be one thing that the [flotilla] organizers failed to take into account: Greece's attitude towards the flotilla, and the dramatic change that has occurred in Israeli-Greek relations in the past year," wrote Menachem Ganz in the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

How Israel has cultivated ties with Greece

The shift in Israeli-Greek relations began within months after an Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara left nine Turkish activists dead, including one with dual American citizenship. While Turkey kept its ambassador to Israel at home in protest, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou paid a visit to Israel – the first in 18 years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly followed up with a visit to Greece.

That marked something of a break with Mr. Papandreou’s father, Andreas, who as prime minister cultivated close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader Yasser Arafat.

While the Israeli and Turkish militaries halted joint exercises, Israeli and Greek air forces began training together, giving Israeli pilots added airspace for practice. The tension in Israel-Turkey ties prompted tens of thousands of Israeli tourists who once flocked to Turkish resorts to look for vacation packages in the neighboring Greek isles instead.

"There’s been intensive investment in ties with Greece since Israeli Turkey ties declined – especially in military ties,’’ says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat who was once posted Turkey.

Mr. Liel said that Israel has offered Greece military supply deals with generous financing terms.

"Greece is a very vulnerable country now, with needs…. They need everything at the moment.’’

Still, Greece's help no substitute for Turkey's heft

The flotilla controversy comes as world attention is fixed on Athens, which last week passed austerity measures to comply with an international debt relief program to avoid defaulting on its sovereign debt.

On Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu thanked European leaders for discouraging the flotilla, and mentioned by name Papandreou – who then asked for help in obtaining tear gas to rein in protesters at home.

In the coming days, Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Balkan states, which Israel has also tried to court in the wake of the falling out with Turkey.

The warmth in ties with Greece is one factor that has spurred recent talks between Israel and Turkey aimed at a reconciliation over the flotilla blow-up last year, analysts say.

Two weeks before Greece’s flotilla clampdown, Turkish government officials also discouraged Turkish activists from participating. Turkish and Israeli negotiators are also reportedly finalizing the details of a United Nations report on the flotilla, which is expected to include words of regret – if not apology – and some sort of compensation for Turkey.

Amid the Arab Spring, both Turkey and Israel have an interest in minimizing tensions in their relationship. With Syria in turmoil next door, Turkey has absorbed more than 12,000 refugees in recent weeks. And while Israel's budding alliance with Greece is paying dividends this week, Athens' weight is no substitute for Ankara's regional heft.

"Turkey was always perceived as a strategic ally, vital ally," said a Western diplomat based in Jerusalem. "Greece certainly cannot replace Turkey. It’s bankrupt, with a smaller population, not as respected in Europe, its military is much smaller. But in the absence of Turkey, having warm relations with Greece is useful, and we are seeing that now.''

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