NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

Editorial: Greece Acts with Responsibility and Determination

Despite a year of preparations, extensive media outreach and a supposed list of over 500 thousand applicants wanting to join, this year's flotilla to Gaza failed to achieve its goal. The maritime convoy's ill-advised attempt to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip fizzled when Greece barred any vessels bound for the Hamas-controlled territory from leaving its ports. The decision by the Greek government was the key step in thwarting the flotilla—an attempt to isolate Israel swathed in the guise of seeking to help the Palestinians in Gaza. It should also be seen as a sign of Greece's deepening ties with the Jewish state, reflected in growing cooperation in multiple fields.

A year after the incident aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara, pro-Palestinian activists planned to once again pull off a public relations stunt by setting sail for Gaza. Their previous attempt to break the blockade, in May 2010, ended when Israeli naval commandos intercepted the ships in international waters off Israel. The commandos met violent resistance upon boarding the Marmara and defended themselves with non-lethal weapons and live fire, resulting in the death of nine Turkish activists and the injury of seven Israeli soldiers.

Despite the needless bloodshed, the flotilla organizers considered last year's events a success. They had managed to generate worldwide attention to an event involving casualties for which Israel was roundly condemned. The purpose of Israel’s blockade on Gaza—to prevent arms smuggling to the U.S.- and E.U.-designated terrorist organization Hamas, which controls the territory—was ignored by much of the international community, as was the fact that the Israeli forces had acted in self-defense and only after the flotilla had rejected the proposal to deliver its cargo to Gaza through Israel.

This time, however, things did not go according to the activists' plan. Owing in part to the admission by the organizers that the flotilla was a confrontational act designed to put global pressure on Israel rather than a true humanitarian effort, various governments were reluctant to be seen as enabling this action. Many issued strong warnings to their nationals not to participate, suggesting that any goods intended for Gaza be delivered through established channels, after security inspection.

Cyprus banned flotilla members from using its port—one of the closest to Gaza—as a point of rendezvous. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called on the organizers to postpone the voyage, and the flagship of the 2010 flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, subsequently dropped out, citing "technical problems."

However, the country that played the key role in thwarting the 2011 Gaza flotilla was Greece. As the flotilla ships were preparing to set sail, the Greek government announced that it was barring the departure from Greek ports of any vessels bound for Gaza. It also offered to send aid to Gaza aboard Greek ships under U.N. supervision, but the organizers rejected the offer. When three ships defied the Greek orders and slipped away from shore, the Greek coast guard forced them back.

By preventing the departure of the flotilla boats, the Greek government averted a provocative and dangerous political act that would have only served to raise tensions in the region. The courageous decision by the Greek government may well have also saved lives.

Just a few days after the flotilla was thwarted, Greek President Karolos Papoulias arrived in Israel for a two-day state visit. "This is not just another state visit, but the beginning of a new chapter in relations between the two countries whose history has in one way or another been intertwined for centuries," said Israeli President Shimon Peres at a state dinner honoring the Greek president.

Peres praised Greece for its assistance in stopping the flotilla, thereby helping to calm the atmosphere in the area. Papoulias described a warm feeling of friendship and cooperation between the two countries. "Our renewed relationship will benefit both countries and those surrounding us," he said.

The past year has seen a sweeping change in Greece-Israel relations. In July 2010, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou became the first Greek premier to visit Jerusalem in decades. A month later, he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on an unprecedented visit to Athens.

Trade between Israel and Greece has increased from $153.6 million in January-May of 2010 to $179.1 million in the same time span this year. Tourism has similarly benefited from the developing relationship, with the number of Israeli tourists in Greece increasing by 139 percent in 2010 to 197,159 visitors.

Military ties have also grown, with the two countries conducting several joint military exercises in the past year. Greece plays an important role in this regard, as it provides the Israel Defense Forces with airspace, land and sea territory to conduct large-scale military exercises. Israel, for its part, has exhibited flexibility in payment terms for the purchase of advanced Israeli weapons systems by the Hellenic Armed Forces.

The cooperation between Greece and Israel shown on the flotilla issue is an important example of their growing relationship. Further enhancing ties would benefit not only the two countries' governments, but millions of people in the eastern Mediterranean. BACK TO TOP