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Israel International Relations: Greece-Israel Relations

by John M. Nomikos and Mitchell Bard

Greece recognized the State of Israel in the late 1940s but was diplomatically represented in Tel Aviv on a lower-than-embassy level for many years. Interaction between Israel and Greece was minimal for almost 45 years but has flourished since the 1990s.

Changes began to occur in 1995 due to several factors. One was Greece’s desire to increase its deterrent power vis-a-vis Turkey. Another element was the death of the pro-PLO Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, in June 1996. The improvement in U.S.-Greece relations also encouraged a shift toward Israel, as did the progress in the Middle East Peace negotiations.

The improvement in relations was reflected in the increase in trade, which doubled between 1989 and 1995. That year Israel exported $200 million worth of chemicals and oil products to Greece and imported $150 million worth of cement, food, and building materials. Israel is, in fact, the Middle East’s second-largest importer of Greek products.

A Greek-Israeli cooperation agreement on military affairs was concluded as early as December 1994 (predating the Turkish-Israeli agreement of February 1996); however, both sides refrained from activating the agreement. Greece was apparently concerned about alienating the Arab world, while Israel did not wish to upset the Turks. Greece and Israel agreed to hold joint naval maneuvers at the end of the summer of 1997, but they were indefinitely postponed by the Greeks. The reason given for the postponement was that the Greek navy was busy preventing infiltrations from Albania, and it could not spare a frigate for the exercises.

In August 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Greece. On his two-day tour, Netanyahu discussed with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou the possibility of expanding strategic ties and establishing greater cooperation between the nations’ militaries and related industries. Israel was keen to expand ties with Greece since its relations with Turkey soured following the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010.

Joint Exercises

In 2011, Israel, Greece, and the United States launched “Noble Dina,” an annual joint military exercise between the countries’ naval and air forces.

Due to the fraying of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey, their decade-long annual naval exercise – code-named “Reliant Mermaid” - was canceled, and in its place, Israel and the United States invited the Greek military to substitute for Turkey. With Greece on board, the exercise was renamed “Noble Dina,” and the overall mission of the training was changed as well - from search and rescue exercises to attack & defend scenarios that included repelling enemy assaults, anti-submarine warfare, and aircraft operations.

The first annual exercise took place in April 2011 off the shores of the Greek Castellorizo/Megisti island complex and involved a number of aircraft, submarines, helicopters, and various other naval vessels from the three countries.

In 2012, the exercise was renewed amid tensions that had continued to build between Turkey and both Greece and Israel.  Additionally, the Greek and Israeli air forces were set to conduct training to simulate repelling an attack on offshore natural gas and oil rigs as both countries had recently hit big deposits in their areas of the Mediterranean Sea. According to a report published in Greece, part of the 2012 exercises was to take place off the coast of Turkey, near the Greek island Mais. The exercise was then to continue off the southern coast of Cyprus before concluding in Haifa port.

The continuation of “Noble Dina” came as Greek-Israel relations were rapidly strengthening.

In January 2012, that expansion of ties became more official when the Greek and Israeli defense ministers announced the signing of a defense cooperation agreement. The pact was cemented during Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s trip to Greece, the fourth such trip by a high-ranking Israeli government official since the summer of 2010. “We are committed to work together to deepen our relations in defense and security,” said Barak. “We have to be prepared for many kinds of developments. ... We must think ahead of time and work together.” 

In March 2012, the Greek-Israel cooperation took another step forward when Israeli Energy & Water Minister, Uzi Landau, signed an agreement with Greek Environment, Energy, and Climate Minister George Papaconstantinou for cooperation between their two countries in the field of environmental protection. The agreement calls for exchanging knowledge and sharing expertise, with particular emphasis on issues of water management, sewage treatment and reuse, desalination, bio-gas and biomass production, energy efficiency, and other elements. Landau also signed a memorandum of understanding with his Greek counterpart for the construction of an electric cable from Israel to Cyprus to Greece, which will allow for redundancy, reciprocal backup, security, and long-term domestic energy for all the parties involved.

In July 2012, Greece and Israel conducted a joint naval exercise, and in November 2012, the Israeli Air Force cooperated with Greece’s air force for a joint exercise in Greek air space to simulate a rescue operation. These recent joint exercises continue to highlight the dramatic increase in cooperation between the two countries.

Cooperation Expands

In October 2013, Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron and his Greek counterpart, Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos, signed a memorandum of understanding to promote cooperation in the field of maritime education in both countries. The fields of cooperation will include domains such as marine geology, biology, ecology, chemistry, mechanics, technology, and aquaculture. As part of the memorandum, the ministers also agreed to advance student exchanges between the two countries, organize meetings between pupils from both countries, promote cooperation between higher education institutions, and establish a joint committee to oversee and advance the cooperation.

Also in October 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greece Prime Minister Antonis Samaras met for the first-ever G2G (Government-to-Government) meeting to be held in Jerusalem. During the meeting, the two national leaders signed ten separate cooperation agreements in fields like energy, science, technology, culture, and education - as noted above. “This is a partnership that excludes no one and potentially includes all peoples in our region, aspiring to the same ideals of stability, security, peace, and growth,” Samaras said.

In March 2014, elements from the three countries joined again to renew the Noble Dina training maneuvers. The training featured extensive drills for the naval and air forces and also featured a simulation of an “Iranian scenario,” which included practicing defending Israeli ports from attack and implementing a “swarm” tactic where a large vessel is overcome by many smaller boats. 

The Israeli Navy held joint drills with the U.S. and Greek Navies in May 2015. The training operation, named Noble Dina, began on April 27 and saw Israeli, Greek, and U.S. Navy commandos complete sea-air-land maneuvers and use various Navy vehicles. Three Israeli missile ships took part in the drills, along with dolphin submarines, Israeli Navy helicopters, Greek submarines, and the Hellenic Air Force.

The Israeli Air Force completed a comprehensive training exercise in Greece’s mountainous terrain in late July 2015, separate from Noble Dina. The purpose of this training exercise was to expose Israeli pilots to flying in different situations because Israel is a relatively flat country with little topographical variety. Israeli pilots practiced ejecting safely, rescuing ejected comrades, and airlifting ground units. Most of the training took place on, and in the vicinity of, Mount Olympus. Following the exercise, IAF commanders confidently stated the training “significantly strengthened our operational abilities.”

Building a Pipeline

In a first-of-its-kind tripartite summit, Netanyahu, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras held meetings together in the Cypriot capital on January 28, 2015. Leaders from the three countries pledged to work together to encourage stability and cooperation in the region and signed water-sharing agreements. Netanyahu announced plans to form a trilateral committee, including representatives from Greece and Cyprus, to explore the prospect of building a pipeline between the three countries to export oil and gas to Europe.  

In the wake of these meetings, a cooperative agreement was signed between Cypriot, Greek, and Israeli representatives on March 3, 2016. This agreement expressed the desire for trilateral cooperation between the three countries and set the stage for regular, annual meetings of the group. According to officials, in these future meetings, the group will discuss “inter alia, parliamentary cooperation; sharing views on regional issues and matters related to energy; on research and development and technology; cyber security; counter-terrorism; joint emergency response to natural disasters; exchange of information in emergency situations; agriculture; tourism; culture; education and migration.”

Greek, Cypriot, and Israeli leaders met in Jerusalem on December 8, 2016, to discuss the construction and promotion of an oil pipeline from Israel to Greece and then on to Italy and Bulgaria. The price of the pipeline is estimated to total $6.7 billion, and construction aims to be completed by 2025.  In June 2017, leaders from Greece, Cyprus, and Israel met again to discuss the pipeline, this time in Thessaloniki, Greece.  Speaking after the meeting, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stated that the group agreed to expedite our joint actions concerning our agreement on the construction of the pipeline.  

In 2018, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy, with the backing of the EU, reached an agreement to construct the world’s longest underwater pipeline (more than 1,300 miles) for the export of gas from Israel to Cyprus and from there to Greece, Crete, and Italy. The United States, which originally supported the East Med pipeline project, withdrew its endorsement in 2022 due to concerns about its economic feasibility, its environmental impact, and its opposition from Turkey. 

Following the demise of the East Med project, the European Union earmarked $736 million in January 2022 for the construction of the EuroAsia Interconnector, a 2,000-megawatt undersea electricity cable that will link the power grids of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. 

In August 2021, Israel dispatched two firefighting aircraft to Greece to help combat wildfires Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described on Monday as “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions.” An Israeli Air Force plane carrying equipment for the delegation of Israeli firefighters joined the two firefighting planes.

On October 21, 2022, Greece began operations at an international pilot training center. Israeli defense contractor Elbit signed a $1.65 billion deal with Greece’s government to help run the facility on an air force base near Kalamata.

Aeronautics Ltd. announced a contract in April 2023 to supply its Orbiter 3 systems to the Greek Ministry of Defense. The agreement is part of the large contract between the Israeli and Greek Ministry of Defense, worth approximately $400 million, for the procurement of Rafael’s Spike missiles.

In May 2023, the Greek and Israeli air forces participated in a joint exercise to train, familiarize, and coordinate F-16 aircraft crews in to air-to-air refueling (AAR). The fighters came from Greece and the refueling aircraft from Israel. Exercises take place twice a year as part of the implementation of the Defense Cooperation Agreement. According to the news, they contribute “to increasing the level of operational readiness, combat capability, exchange of know-how, and upgrading the multi-level military synergy of the Armed Forces of the two countries.”

In July 2023, Israel sent two firefighting aircraft to aid in international efforts to control recent wildfires in Greece.

In September 2023, Greece purchased air-to-surface precision-guided munitions manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to improve the attack capabilities of its F-16s fleet.

 John Nomikos ([email protected]) is a security analyst in Athens, Greece. The most recent updates to this article are not from his work.

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