By Gabriel Haritos *
The first Israel-Hellenic Forum took place in Jerusalem between the 12th and the 14th of November, with the participation of diplomats, academics, technocrats and journalists from Israel, Greece and Cyprus. It was initiated by B’nai B’rith International, an organization which is active among the Jewish diaspora since 1843 and maintains permanent representation in the United Nations since 1960. The first Israel-Hellenic Forum came as the result of the long-lasting cooperation between B’nai B’rith and the Greek-American lobby. I had the honor and the pleasure to be invited in the event and participate as a speaker, attempting a brief overview of Greek-Israeli relations before the two countries realize the multiple possibilities of regional cooperation.
The pro-Arab stance Greek governments were adopting in the international fora for decades was criticized in various ways in Israel, beginning from its establishment in 1948 and up to 2010. From 2010 onwards, those criticisms are somehow forgotten. Nevertheless, Israeli questions still remain, as to what exactly prompted Greece to criticize severely their country's policy during the past. Now, it seems to be the right time for rational answers.
In 1947 Greece voted against the UN Partition Plan, according to which two States were to be established in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. Back then, in Israel, Greece's ‘No-vote’ was perceived as anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli and purely anti-Semitic. However, had the Greek State been anti-Semitic, Greek Authorities would have banned the operation of local Jewish organizations – mainly in Thessaloniki – which were actively advocating Zionist ideals by promoting Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s. Such practice from the part of the Greek administration never happened.
The Greek rejection of the UN Partition Plan can be explained easily. Back in 1947 the Civil War in Greece raged and the government in Athens needed British backing. The UN Partition Plan would officially bring to an end the British Mandate in Palestine, and this development was conceived by Athens as a clear sign the beginning of London’s withdrawal from the Eastern Mediterranean. Back then, such possibility scared Athens. By saying “No” to the Partition Plan, the British-backed Greek government was actually stating in a firm way its desire for Britain to remain in the region. A similar pro-British statement was made by Turkey as well – a fact we often tend to forget -. A firm Turkish declaration against the end of the British Mandate in Palestine aimed to make clear that Turkey was willing to become a part of the post-War West and that its previous important period of neutrality came already to an end.
It is obvious that Athens had no reason to wish or not to wish the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. Actually, Greece was the country that hosted the first UN peacekeeping mediation to end the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. From June 1948 to April 1949, Israeli, Egyptian, and Jordanian negotiators were hosted in Rhodes, where they signed the Armistice Agreements of 1949, which essentially split Palestine into two. During the Rhodes Armistice Negotiations, Greek diplomacy was too careful not to express any position whatsoever, in order not to be seen as supportive of the irrevocable British withdrawal, nor supported of Israelis or Arabs. It was the choice of Greek diplomacy to seem as absent as possible, while at the same time it was promoting the then Mayor of Rhodes, Gabriel Haritos, to manage Greece’s good services within the framework of the host country’s duties.
However, excessive neutrality led to misunderstandings, leading to diplomatic paradoxes. While the boundaries of Israel’s territory were essentially defined by the Armistice Agreements which were signed on Greek soil, the Greek State itself decided not to recognize Israel neither de jure nor de facto. A Greek Consul served in Jerusalem since 1862, initially accredited to the Ottomans and later to the British Authorities. From 1948 and for four consequent years, the Greek Consul was not accredited neither to the Israeli nor to the Jordanian Authorities, which were in control of the two parts of the city.
Greece's diplomatic “self-standing” presence in Jerusalem – which was by then, according to Israeli, the country’s capital - ended in 1952, when Athens recognized Israel de facto (due to US pressure, since Greece was about to become a NATO member-State). But that de facto recognition, instead of clearing up the picture, it lead to a new diplomatic paradox: The Greek Consul in Jerusalem was renamed "Diplomatic Representative of Greece to the Israeli Government". In other words, Greece was recognizing the Israeli government de facto, while it was not totally clear whether that recognition was referring to the Israeli State itself.. This question remained unanswered not sooner that in May 1990, when both countries decided to normalize their diplomatic relations.
In the 1950s, the Cyprus Conflict monopolized the Greek foreign policy agenda. It was the decade that Greece conducted a difficult diplomatic struggle within the framework of the UN General Assembly, where Israel had only one vote and the Arab countries much more. The Greek pro-Arab stance was the result of a simple ‘vote-counting rationale’. The same rationale was applied even after the signing of the 1959 London-Zurich Agreements on Cyprus, because Athens was trying to preserve the presence of the Greek Diaspora in Nasserist Egypt. In the early 1960s, even after the massive displacement of the Greek community in Egypt, Athens was hoping for a compensation agreement with the Nasserist regime – a hope that never came true. Nevertheless, Greece felt that this ‘vote-counting rationale’ would be useful in the UN, due to the clash between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, from the end of 1963 and onwards. Greece could not possibly ignore all these facts. Greek-Israeli diplomatic normalization would diminish any possibility of pro-Greek Arab votes, mainly in the UN or elsewhere.
1967 has been a turning point for Greek-Israeli relations. Both Greece and Israel found themselves isolated diplomatically - the first due to the establishment of a military regime following the coup on April 21, 1967, the latter due to the Six Day War. For the backstage contacts between Athens and Jerusalem, History still has much to tell. Despite the sudden change of atmosphere between the two countries, Greece avoided to express any clear stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, lest its critics multiply. Israel was experiencing exactly the same fear and careful reluctancy characterized its public approach toward military-ruled Greece at that specific period of time.
With the Transition to Democracy (1975), the “vote-counting rationale” became again the main criteria about Greece’s decision to normalize its ties with Israel or not. Due to Turkey’s invasion to Cyprus in 1974, Greece was once again in need of the numerous Arab votes in the UN. Greek diplomacy was renewing its pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian agenda throughout the 1980s. It was back then, when Turkey was trying to legitimize its faits accomplis in Cyprus by encouraging the Muslim (and Arab) Stated to diplomatically recognize the so-called "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (“TRNC”) – the administrative entity established by Turkey on November 15, 1983.
That was exactly the period when Greece was cultivating close political ties with Libya. The Greek-Libyan connection seemed to surprise Greece’s Western allies at that times. Nevertheless, that approach was revealing Athens' anxiety to avoid any possibility of an Arab recognition of the “TRNC”. Greece did not forget that in the summer of 1974, Gaddafi’s Libya was the only country to congratulate Turkey for its invasion of Cyprus. The reason was simple: Gaddafi wanted to legitimize his country’s its invasion to Northern Chad, which occurred two years beforehand, in 1972. Since Colonel Gaddafi was not controlled by the West, Greek PM Andreas Papandreou wisely decided to woo him, in order to avoid any Libyan act of recognition of the "TRNC". And Greece did manage to prevent such a move.
On the other hand, Greece wanted to prevent a parallel move from the moderate Sunni Arab States of the Gulf. The cultivation of warm ties with PLO’s Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian cause in general was viewed by Andreas Papandreou’s administration as a strategic choice, which did prevent a massive Arab diplomatic recognition of the “TRNC” on the one hand, while on the other hand reassured the Hellenic ethnic character of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem during the period of the First Intifada. Nevertheless, Turkish diplomatic efforts succeeded to grant “TRNC” the “observer status” at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
In the 1990s, the Oslo Accords changed the balance between Israel and the Arab world. This development created the momentum for Greece to normalize its relations with Israel. Since 2010, the newly revealed natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean were meant to become the main catalyst, resulting in a solid common ground, upon which the ongoing multidimensional regional cooperation is taking place, along with the Republic of Cyprus.
*Dr. Gabriel Haritos is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow at the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs, University of Nicosia