Cyprus’ own separation barriers keep flotilla boats docked in Greece

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Greece’s decision to block activists from sailing to the Gaza Strip has many causes, but a primary one can be found in the decades long hostility between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus combined with the break in Turkish-Israeli relations and in the cynicalrealpolitik nation-states play with alliances and human rights.

Two 11 July pieces in the Israeli daily Haaretz offer important context to understand the Greek government’s decision to block Palestine solidarity activists from embarking towards the Gaza Strip. In the first, Tel Aviv University professor Ehud Toledano comments on the debate inside the Israeli Foreign Ministry “between those who want to meet Turkish demands for an Israeli apology and compensation to the families of the [nine Turkish citizens killed aboard the Mavi Marmara in May, 2010], and those who are willing to only ‘express sorrow’ and maybe offer indirect compensation.”

Toledano, a professor of Ottoman history, finds no logic in this debate and considers the “damage to Israel’s ‘strategic alliance’ with Turkey [to be] irreversible.” He predicts that any “normalizing [of] diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey will not mean the resumption of any alliance, but at most a change in rhetoric.” Thus, he asks, “Why should Israel get down on its hands and knees and apologize”? [A quick aside: Like so much of contemporary global political discourse, there is no ethical content to Toledano’s analysis. His piece contains only analyses of the techniques of international relations and is entirely devoid of ethical discourse. Asking whether attacking the Mavi Marmara was perhaps something that Israel should apologize for would no doubt be considered ‘starry-eyed’ or, given the masculine posturing in his article, perhaps ’weak’.] And as Toledano suggests, it is almost impossible to imagine Turkey playing the key role it has in Israeli foreign policy since the development of the Alliance of the Periphery strategy after the 1956 Suez War, much less the very close relations of the past twenty years.

But Toledano’s article is reductive in ascribing the Turkish-Israeli break to the aftermath of the 2010 flotilla. The rapid deterioration in relations began earlier in December 2008 with Operation Cast Lead and the mass Palestinian casualties in Gaza. The Armenian paper Asbarez noted that after Operation Cast Lead, “the two nations’ ties suffered badly and the Israeli military’s privileges in Turkey gradually came to an end. The Israeli Air Force’s training program in Turkish airspace was halted and in October [2009], Israel was expelled from Turkey’s annual international Air Force exercises.” This period saw Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publically castigating Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos saying, “You are killing people!” and walking off their shared stage. Whether the attempts made to repair the ties could have succeeded became a moot point after the 31 May 2010 Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara.

The second article is a shorter news piece about the Monday meeting in Jerusalem between Peres and his Greek counterpart, President Karolos Papoulias. Peres thanked Papoulias for Greece’s role in “stopping the Gaza flotilla.” Greece’s role, especially that of its security forces, has been well documented at this point. The article ends with one sentence that is far more enlightening: “Peres and the Greek president also discussed their countries’ strengthening ties in a number of political and business areas.” These “strenghtening ties” are tied directly to the previous flotilla and the Turkish-Israeli break over it and Cast Lead. An examination sheds a lot of light on Greece’s behavior towards the flotilla.

A year after Erdogan’s public dressing down of Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ran into Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou at a Moscow restaurant while both were in Russia. Haaretz reported that “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 result? “The Israeli and Greek leaders have spoken to each other at least once a week ever since they met in Moscow” and shortly after, military and intelligence cooperation began.

In August 2010, Reuters noted that “Israel has been keen to expand ties with Greece as its relations with Turkey – another strategic Mediterranean partner – soured” after the attack on the Mavi Marmara. Netanyahu noted during a visit to Greece that the nationswere “opening a new chapter” while an official in his entourage said talks between Netanyahu and Papandreou “explored establishing greater cooperation between both countries’ military industries and armies.” Papandreou clarified the basis of the developing ties by taking Netanyahu for a trip to an island off the Athens coast in a missile boat Israel sold to Greece in 2004.

Greek and Israeli Air Forces carried out a “large-scale drill” in October 2010 and Defense News commented that, “Spurned by Turkey, a partner in bilateral and multilateral military exercises for more than a decade, the Israel Air Force is now conducting routine drills with Ankara’s Aegean rival, Greece.” This is a significant departure from the days when Israel accused Papandreou’s father, Andrea Papandreou, of siding against Israel and tolerating – not to say supporting – those Israel considered to be terrorists.Indeed, Greek-Israeli military cooperation is being ever increased.

When the confrontation over the flotilla was coming to a head in the first week of July, the Greek and Israeli air forces were finishing two weeks of joint military exercises. On 8 July, while the international eye was on the Greek crackdown on the flotilla, Greek Defense Minister Panos Beglitis said “We will soon sign an agreement [with Israel] on military cooperation which will mainly involve [the] defense industry and supply of armaments.”

Greek-Turkish relations have improved significantly over the past ten years and the rabid emnity has disapated enough that Greece now backs Turkey’s application for EU membership. While renewed war over Cyprus seems quite unlikely at this point, the decision to embrace Greece after the break with Turkey is not coincidental. The improved Turkish-Greek relations remain chilly and negotiations over Cyprus have a long ways to go. The outreach to Greece, what Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid described as “showing Erdogan that Israel will not hesitate to become close to [Turkey’s] greatest enemy in the West,” is part of the same effort to oppose Turkey internationally by encouraging Knesset debate about the Armenian Genocide, a topic formerly frowned upon as insensitive to the Turkish-Israeli alliance.

There is other important context of course, most notably the Great Recession and Greek financial meltdown. A common refrain from left-wing and Palestine solidarity activists has been to point to this as “the reason for Greece’s participation in the suppression” of the flotilla. This incorrectly paints Greece as somehow hostage to Israeli and US machinations. While it is clear that Greece is currently highly vulnerable to international pressure, there is little indication that it was not already predisposed to stopping the flotilla.

Israeli debates about whether the Armenian genocide happened – or put in a more genial light, whether the mass killings should be termed ‘genocide’ – are tied directly to relations with Turkey with the killings that took place between 1915-17 being coincidental to the discussion. Greece’s actions are no less cynical and cannot be ascribed to Papandreou buckling under US and Israeli pressure. The Greek government has agency all its own here. In July 2008 it was no problem for the Free Gaza movement to publically purchase and prepare ships in Greece for the trips to Gaza that autumn. This was when Israeli-Turkish relations were still very good. As the relations soured, Greece saw an opportunity to engage their rival’s former ally. The ethics of Palestinian solidarity and Greek public opinion did not significantly change in the interim, the political alignment of Papandreou’s government did.

There is mutuality between Israel and Greece in the effort to stop the flotilla. Israel and the United States doubtlessly applied whatever pressure they felt was needed to achieve their goals, but it is wrong to assume that were it not for this pressure that the Papandreou government would have seen the flotilla activists safely out of port with warm, revolutionary regards. Instead, a key aspect of Greece’s decision is the advantage gained over Turkey by realigning with Ankara’s former ally in Jerusalem.

Jimmy Johnson is founder of Neged Neshek, a project offering analysis, news, and data about Israeli arms exports and militarism. He lives in Detroit and can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.

About Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson lives in Detroit with his books and bad habits. Get at him @aus3rn4me.

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