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Israel International Relations: Greece-Israel Relations

by John M. Nomikos * (Updated June 2017)

Greece recognized the State of Israel in the late 1940's, 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 1990's.

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 for 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 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, PM Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Greece. On his two-day tour, PM Netanyahu discussed with Greek PM 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.

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 defence 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 a another step forward when Israeli Energy & Water Minister, Uzi Landau, signed a 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.

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.

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 during late July 2015, separate from Noble Dina. The purpose of this training exercise was to expose the 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.”

In a first-of-it's-kind tripartite summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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. Israeli PM 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 contruction of the pipeline.  

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.

Sources: Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Allyn Fisher-Ilan, “Israel and Greece seek to expand military ties,” Reuters (August 17, 2010).
Sharon Udasin, “Natural gas exports will first go to Arab neighbors,” Jerusalem Post;(March 28, 2012).
“Top of the Olympus,” (October 23, 2012).
Danielle Ziri, “Israel and Greek education ministries tighten cooperation,” Jerusalem Post (October 9, 2013).
Yaakov Lapin, “Israel holds naval drill with U.S., Greece,” Jerusalem Post (May 6, 2015).
Yaakov Lapin, “IAF helicopter squadrons complete huge training drill in Greece,” Jerusalem Post (August 4, 2015).
“In unprecedented meet, Netanyahu, Greek and Cypriot leaders push gas pipeline as peace catalyst,” Times of Israel, (January 28, 2016).
Herb Keinon, “Once staunch critic, Cyprus now sees Israel as fighting for its survival,” Jerusalem Post (January 12, 2016).
Herb Keinon, Netanyahu Focuses on Energy in Greek-Cypriot Meeting, Jerusalem Post, (June 16, 2017).
“Israel to send two firefighting planes to battle raging wildfires in Greece,” JNS, (August 10, 2021)

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