Financial chaos makes Greece Israel's hero and flotilla's wrecker

July 3, 2011
Sarah Benton

Netanyahu’s big fat Greek Wedding
Netanyahu has invested in his relationship with Greece over the course of the past year-and-a-half, and his gamble has finally paid off as Greece blocks Gaza-flotilla-bound departures from its ports.
By Barak Ravid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sometimes seems almost too arrogant and self assured for his own good. However, unlike in most instances, this weekend he actually has justification for his haughtiness.

Netanyahu’s personal investment in his relationship over the past year-and-a-half with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in which he increased diplomatic ties with the floundering European nation seems to have put the final nail in the Gaza flotilla’s coffin.

In his speech Thursday night for the Israeli Air Force Flight School graduation ceremony, Netanyahu discussed diplomatic efforts being made to prevent the Gaza flotilla from setting sail. The only leader that Netanyahu mentioned by name in his address was Greece’s George Papandreou.

Just a day earlier, the prime minister spoke with his Greek counterpart, imploring him to issue an order preventing ships from disembarking from Greece toward the Gaza Strip. Unlike in the past, Papandreou responded positively, and a top Israeli official involved in the talks between the Greek prime minister and Netanyahu said that Israel knew as early as Thursday afternoon that Greece was planning to block ships from leaving its ports toward the strip.

The romance between Netanyahu and Papandreou began in February of 2010, when the two met coincidentally at the “Pushkin” restaurant in Moscow. Netanyahu took advantage of their chance encounter to speak with the Greek prime minister about Turkish extremism against Israel and the two quickly became friends.

The Israeli and Greek leaders have spoken to each other at least once a week ever since they met in Moscow.
The Turkish flotilla to Gaza in May of 2010 led to serious concern among the intelligence and military ranks in Greece, who began pressuring the government to strengthen diplomatic ties with Israel. Papandreou did not need much convincing.
In July of 2010 he arrived in Jerusalem, the first official visit of a Greek prime minister to Israel in 30 years. A few weeks later Netanyahu travelled to Athens, spending a whole day with Papandreou and other officials on a nearby island.

Israeli diplomats can attest that the budding friendship between the two countries over the course of the past year-and-a-half has been nothing short of dramatic. Intelligence communication has increased, the IAF has conducted a number of joint exercises with Greece’s air force and Netanyahu has requested Papandreou’s assistance in passing on several messages to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Many of Netanyahu and Papandreou’s talks in the past few months have revolved around the severe financial crisis Greece is currently suffering. Netanyahu recently decided to come to the aid of his newfound friend in a meeting of foreign ministers and European leaders, imploring them to provide Greece with financial aid. “Netanyahu has become Greece’s lobbyist to the European Union,” an Israeli diplomat said.

In recent weeks, as efforts to stop the impending pro-Palestinian flotilla to Gaza came to a head, Netanyahu reaped the benefits of his investment in Israel-Greece ties and his gamble on the European country paid off.

He was able to create a viable alternative to relations with Turkey in several regards, showing Erdogan that Israel will not hesitate to become close to its greatest enemy in the West.

And when the moment of truth came, Greece followed through and ordered all Gaza-bound departures be blocked from leaving its ports. Greece’s decision, along with the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) announcement that it would not be sending the Mavi Marmara and the president of Cypress’s statement forbidding ships from sailing to Gaza sealed the fate of the flotilla almost entirely.

“The flotilla organizers did not take into account that Greece of July 2011 is not the Greece of May 2010,” said a top Israeli official that worked intensively in the past few months to prevent the Gaza flotilla mission from taking place.
“Today there is a different Greece when it comes to Israel,” he added. “The organizers of the flotilla did not understand this, and now they are paying the price.”


With a little help from our friends
Itamar Eichner, Yediot,

When the first cracks appeared in [Israel’s] relationship with Turkey, Israel began expanding diplomatic and military ties with Greece, Turkey’s traditional rival. Over the weekend the alliance bore its first fruits, when Greek naval commandos prevented The Audacity of Hope from setting sail for Gaza. Israel and Turkey shared a strategic alliance for years. But when the Erdogan government began to attack Israel, and especially after the Mavi Marmara incident last year that turned tensions between the countries into a bona fide split, Israel began looking for new allies in the region. Israeli diplomacy, displaying an uncharacteristic creativity, began spinning a new web of connections. The chemistry between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou paved the way for a real alliance between the countries: Israel sold advanced weapons to the Greek army, Israel Air Force pilots trained in Greek airspace and hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists traded Turkish resorts for Greek islands.

When preparations for the second flotilla to Gaza began, Israel asked its new ally to prevent the peace activists’ ships from setting sail for Gaza from Greek ports. In Jerusalem, authorities believed the Greeks would agree: after all, even Turkey and Cyprus prevented the flotilla from using their ports as departure stations. Athens promised to “sink” the flotilla ships with bureaucracy, a move that would have prevented them from setting sail: a ship lacking even one fire extinguisher, they promised, would be grounded for violating safety codes. But the Greeks also explained that an extensive legal review led to the conclusion that they could not completely prevent the ships from setting sail.

Sources in Jerusalem didn’t like the answer. “How could it be that even Turkey stopped the flotilla—and you are giving them the okay,” Israeli diplomats asked their Greek counterparts. As reported in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday, this is where Netanyahu entered the picture. Last week, the prime minister held several crucial telephone conversations with Papandreou, the last of which was last Wednesday night. Behind the scenes Israel sent veiled threats: “If this flotilla gets underway, it will go down in history as the‘Greek flotilla.”

Israeli diplomats said the warning made the Greeks recoil. “At this time, when the Greek economy is crumbling and [Greece] needs every dollar it can get, the last thing they need is a violent clash that will be registered in their name.”On Friday Greece showed the first signs of an about face. Greece’s minister for internal security, who is responsible for the country’s Coast Guard, announced that the flotilla ships would not be allowed to set sailfor Gaza. When it became clear that the Audacity of Hope
was planning to ignore the ruling and to set sail for Gaza, Greek commandos attacked the boat with guns drawn, forced the boat to return to port and arrested the commander.

The incident, which followed mysterious mishaps on two other flotilla ships in Greece and Turkey, apparently sealed the flotilla’s fate. “Flotilla organizers apparently didn’t take into account the romance between Israel and Greece,” said one diplomatic source. This week Netanyahu will travel to Romania and Bulgaria, two more members of the “Balkan Alliance” that Israel is working on developing, to ask their leaders not to support a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood.

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