Israel, Greece and the Turkish challenge

Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman

Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Israel is unable to get directly involved in eastern Mediterranean hostilities, should they erupt. But it can and should cooperate closely with Greece in intelligence matters and arms acquisition and coordinate political action with Greece in Washington. The US stance largely will determine the practical scope of Erdogan’s ambitions.

The Current Situation

The government-to-government meeting in Israel in which Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and some his key ministers joined their Israeli counterparts (June 16, 2020), was of strategic importance. Beyond questions of COVID-19 and tourism which dominated media coverage, the talks focused on responding to Turkish aggression in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ever since his ruling party was humiliated in municipal elections in the summer of 2019 (particularly in Istanbul), Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been busy promoting a nationalist-Islamist agenda. Among other targets, Erdogan aims at Israel, as indicated by many government statements which link the “Islamization” of the Aghia Sophia in Istanbul to the future “liberation” of al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

At the geo-strategic (and economic) level, the struggle is now focused upon the delineation of the Exclusive Economic Zone map in the eastern Mediterranean – an issue with significant consequences for Israel. This in turn is closely associated with the Turkish military intervention in Libya (and the possible Egyptian counter-intervention), as well as with Turkish prospecting for energy in Greek EEZ waters off Crete, and naval provocations near Rhodes.

For obvious reasons – above all, due to the dangers posed by Iran, and the resulting tensions in the north – Israel is reluctant to be an active partner in preparing possible war scenarios alongside Greece (or Egypt). It can and should, however, help by broadening the scope of intelligence cooperation; by working together on military acquisition projects, such as the joint development of naval assets; and in particular, by focusing attention on the “Archimedean point” in Washington. It will be the US position – Administration and Congress – which will to a large extent influence Erdogan’s level of strategic risk-taking and the scope of his “neo-Ottoman” ambitions.

The G-to-G Meeting in Context

On May 21, Israel and Greece marked the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. There was a celebratory joint statement of President Reuven Rivlin and his Greek counterpart Katerina Sakellaropoulou. (Their duties are largely symbolic in nature). Prime Ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Kyriakos Mitsotakis shared a toast by Zoom.

Their statements reflected the dramatic shift in relations between the two countries, compared with the early decades of Israel’s existence, when Greece gave clear priority to its interests in the Arab world, and even voted against the idea of a Jewish state at the UN General Assembly in 1947. This turn towards friendship has been cemented even during the rule of Alexis Tsipras and his distinctly left-wing party, Syriza (2015-2019); and now reaffirmed and strengthened with the center right Nea Demokratia (New Democracy) back in power.

In line with this transformation, and reflecting the growing intimacy in Israeli-Greek relations, the fourth government-to-government (G2G) meeting was held in Israel (on June 16, 2020), attended by Mitsotakis – who came with his wife and son – and six ministers of his government. They were Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, Minster for the Environment and Energy Konstantinos (Kostis) Hatzidakis, Minister of Development and Investment Adonis Georgiadis, Minister of Tourism Haris Theocharis, and Minister of Digital Governance Kyriakos Pierrakakis.

As the joint statement indicates, the ministers discussed with their counterparts a broad range of cooperative projects now being established between the two countries (and in the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot triangle). These include projects in the fields of health policy; energy; environment; “smart cities;” agricultural development (with an emphasis of marine agriculture); investment, particularly in R&D; and cyber defense. This broad agenda is in line with the issues that have come up repeatedly in the tripartite summit meetings of Israeli, Greek and Cypriot leaders in recent years. (The Greek Minister of Health, Vassilis Kikilias, who is a staunch supporter of the alignment with Israel, did not attend the summit but he is scheduled to come on his own visit.)

Under the circumstances, media attention centered upon issues of tourism and civil aviation – given the eagerness of the Israeli public, in the Corona era, to be able to fly abroad. There was an announcement that Greece would enable the resumption of flights in early August 2020. Still, the actual text of the formal joint statement, which lists the full range of subjects under discussion, clearly indicates that at the strategic level, the G2G was mainly concerned with foreign policy and defense issues, and specifically, with aspects of the ever-growing challenge posed by the policies of Turkish president Erdogan.

The Turkish Challenge and its Implications

The paragraph dealing with the exchanges of the two foreign ministers, Dendias and Ashkenazi, mentions several important questions that were discussed, including the role of Greece in combatting anti-Semitism, and specifically in promoting the IHRA definition (which defines anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism). There was also a reference to the possible support Greece may lend Israel in EU discussions, including negotiations about the “Horizon” program of scientific cooperation.

Still, the text prominently lists up front the situation in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Except for Lebanon, where Iran has an almost exclusive role (and even there, signs are emerging of active Turkish meddling) all the others are subject to active interventions by both Iran and Turkey. The latter’s strategic ambitions increasingly cast their shadow on the future of the eastern Mediterranean.  (JISS scholar Dr. Jonathan Spyer calls this the Turkish “arc of instability.”) Moreover, the joint statement made it clear that Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with Greece when it comes to the latter’s maritime rights, as follows:

“We call for respect for sovereign rights of all states in their Continental Shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone in accordance with customary international Law of the Sea. We strongly oppose attempts to violate these rights in a manner that endangers the stability of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, violates international law, and runs counter to good neighborly relations. Our two countries will coordinate policies.”

It then also reaffirmed “the right of Israel to live in security and peaceful coexistence with all its neighbors, including the Palestinians”; lent support to the “deep historical bonds of the Jewish people to its historical homeland”; and condemned calls for Israel’s destruction, thus taking a stand against Iran’s purposes in the region.

Neither Erdogan’s name, nor that of Turkey, were mentioned explicitly, but there can be no doubt as to who the statement was aimed at. The quoted text is primarily directed at the memorandum of understanding signed by Turkey with the “Government of National Accord” (GNA) which rules northwest Libya (Tripoli and its environs) in November 2019. This MoU (coupled with another MoU which arranged for the deployment of significant Turkish forces to Libya to assist the GNA against Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army”) includes a map, kept secret, delineating the EEZ borders in the eastern Mediterranean so that Turkey would have a common border with Libya.

This, in turn, means that Egypt would not have a common border with the Greek EEZ (which can only be constructed if the rights of Greece around the Island of Crete are blatantly ignored). Israel, Cyprus and Egypt would need Erdogan’s permission to lay infrastructure connecting their gas fields to the European markets. Meanwhile, Erdogan has raised the prospect of re-opening the question of the maritime border in the Aegean. Turkish naval vessels have challenged the Greek claim to sovereignty in the waters between Rhodes and the small island of Castellorizo (which the Turks call Meis) in ways which have brought the two countries closer to conflict.

The situation has worsened since the G2G meeting. With Turkey intent upon carrying out energy explorations in the waters it claims near Crete, warlike statements and stern warnings have been heard from senior military officers on both sides. Despite the bloody legacies of the 1920s, and the more recent bitter impact of the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the possibility of war between two NATO allies seemed grotesque for many years. But under present circumstances it cannot be entirely ruled out. Hence, the urgent efforts by third parties such as Germany at de-escalation.

The Greek Foreign Minister has expressed his country’s willingness to negotiate with Ankara over the EEZ delineation, honestly and without preconditions. But so far there has been little that would give Erdogan an incentive to compromise. GNA forces, backed by the Turkish military intervention, have made military gains (specifically, the expulsion of the LNA from the al-Watiyyah Air Force Base, in May 2020, which broke the siege of Tripoli and pushed back Haftar’s forces). At least in theory, Faiz Sarraj and his GNA can now seek to implement the EEZ MoU as it stands, unless an Egyptian military intervention changes the situation again.

Another factor raising tensions and adding to regional destabilization is the sequence of provocative acts Erdogan has been pronouncing regularly in recent months, seeking to restore the political and ideological hegemony of his party, the AKP (and that of his nationalist partners, the MHP) over his domestic rivals (which are both the secular Kemalists and the growing list of former AKP leaders who broke with Erdogan on personal grounds). His decision to uphold and implement a Turkish court ruling on the illegality of Ataturk’s decision to turn the Aghia Sophia (which had served as a mosque since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453) into a museum demonstrated a blatant disregard for the sentiments of the Christian world. Moreover, the celebrations surrounding the re-conversion of this magnificent building into a mosque were given a specific anti-Israeli tinge through persistent statements by AKP mouthpieces suggesting that al-Aqsa in Jerusalem would soon be “liberated” as well.

The Role of Other Regional and External Players

This struggle to contain Turkish ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean has drawn into the cauldron other players whose actions have a bearing on the regional balance of power. (Israel’s policies must take their roles into account.)

Egypt is now caught in the vice of two threats: facing Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam, and countering the Turkish-backed GNA in Libya which Cairo looks upon as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. For Sisi’s regime, this has taken on almost existential significance. His designation of the Sirte-Jufra front as a “red line” for Egypt raises, at least in theory, the prospect of a direct military confrontation between Turkish and Egyptian forces. Greece has given full backing to Egypt’s stance in Libya but is unlikely to be able to render military assistance in the case of hostilities.

France is consistently coordinated with Greece at the highest level and fully supports Greek (and Egyptian as well as UAE) positions. President Macron does not hide his preference for Haftar’s forces in Libya or his concern over Erdogan’s policies – to the point of an open rift in NATO ranks and sharp public exchanges between the two presidents. However, beyond military supplies and some inconsistent efforts to foil Turkish arms shipments to Tripoli, France’s ability to influence the turn of events remains limited.

Russia has an intensive ongoing dialogue with Turkey (and with Iran) at the highest level, mainly over the future of Syria but also over Libya and the Mediterranean. At the same time, it has been sympathetic towards Greece and Cyprus for historical, religious, as well as economic and geo-political reasons. President Vladimir Putin is directly implicated. “Wagner” mercenaries employed by his associate, Yevgeny Prigozhin, are fighting on Haftar’s side, and Russian aircraft may have flown sorties in support of the LNA. Moscow is motivated by the hope to regain control over Libya’s oil fields (from which the Russians were ousted after the US and European intervention against Qadhafi in 2011) and by profound hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed as the dominant element within the GNA.[1]

Italy, on the other hand, recently has broken ranks with its European and EMGF (Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum) partners and expressed sympathy towards Sarraj’s government in Tripoli. This conduct greatly has reduced the effectiveness of Operation “Irini,” launched by the European Union in a rare use of its military cooperation structures and presumably aimed at imposing the embargo on arms supplies to either side in Libya. In practice, given the overland route between Egypt and LNA held territories, “Irini” was in effect directed at Turkish supplies to the GNA. But faced with an angry Turkish response, and an ambivalent Italian policy, it is fast becoming another demonstration of EU military weakness.

Germany, meanwhile, has reportedly resumed intense efforts to bring the sides together (Greece and Turkey, as well as the fighting Libyan factions) in line with the work of the Berlin summit in November 2019.

Great importance must be attached under these circumstances to the position of the USA, given its leverage on Erdogan. President Trump’s present National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, was previously the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, and played a role in putting pressure on Erdogan in the successful effort to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson. Trump has veered between a warm personal relationship with Erdogan and very blunt and brutal messages. In the ranks of his Administration there are some key pro-Turkish officials, who have warned against pushing Erdogan into Putin’s arms.

In Congress there is greater resonance to the positions of Greece (backed also by the resumption, albeit largely symbolic, of military assistance to Cyprus). The US embassy in Nicosia announced (on July 8) that as of next year the administration will bring Cyprus into the IMET – International Military Education and Training program – subject to the final approval of the budget for FY 2021. This decision has angered Turkey. Meanwhile the administration is still weighing the implications of the Congressional mandate to end the arms embargo on Cyprus.

What Should Israel Do?

Even if the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean continue to escalate to the point of possible military conflict, Israel cannot commit to take part in any hostilities in Libya, whether on the side of Greece and Cyprus or alongside Egypt. Decency and honesty require this point to be made clear. Above all, the IDF must currently be in full readiness to face the very real possibility of a conflagration on Israel’s northern border, driven by the broader effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

However, this does not mean that Israel has no role to play and no weight in the balance of power. There is a range of issues on which it can and should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Greece and with the other partners of the EMGF. (Note that France has been eager to join as a full member and could take over the role of Italy, given the latter’s signs of disorientation).

Israel can play a role in the realm of intelligence sharing. The dramatically changing landscape in the eastern Mediterranean requires a readjustment of “tasking priorities” (which is the formal guidance given to the various intelligence collection agencies) and of resources allocation, as well as of the structure of the analytical community. While the Iranian threat and the Palestinian problem must retain their top billing, Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean crisis must be given increased attention. Broadening cooperation with Greece in this respect, and sustaining the ongoing relationship with Egypt, should be viewed as vital components of any proper response to the challenges pose by Erdogan.

Israel can also generate new patterns of security cooperation, particularly joint exercises of the air forces and navies (and even more so with the US military joining). This can play an important role in cementing the strategic alignment and maintaining the regional balance of power. The same is true for joint acquisition and R&D, and specifically the plans with Greece to build naval assets together. These themes have come up in the recent meeting of the two military chiefs-of-staff, Lt. General Aviv Kochavi and General Konstantinos Floros (during the latter’s visit in Israel on July 14, 2020). Despite the caveat above as to direct involvement, these signs of close cooperation generate a deterrent effect. In any case, the Israeli navy should seek to build up its capacities in response to the Turkish “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) concept of naval dominance.

As mentioned above, the positions of President Trump and some key members of his administration, as well as actions by Congress, could prove to be the “Archimedean point” in bringing about some change in Turkey’s conduct and in curbing Erdogan’s dangerous and broad ambitions. With active and combined support of the two peoples’ significant diasporas (in the US and beyond), Israel and Greece can play a formative role in this respect, and the sooner the better.


[1]  Due to Muslim Brotherhood support for anti-Russian terror attacks in the Caucasus, Russia has designated it a terror organization. Strangely, however, Hamas (a self-declared branch of the MB) is not included in this designation.

https://jiss.org.il/en/lerman-israel-greece-and-the-turkish-challenge/?fbclid=IwAR0FH-hLMfi3AdZEimblLD1GuP12dCarF0SNt-IvqZRLI-pSGwWGsgZ89tk

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