How Greece Became One of America’s—and Israel’s—Closest Allies

With Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, a one-time U.S. headache is now an increasingly valuable and reliable partner.

As longtime followers of foreign affairs know, the United States and Greece have not always enjoyed the easiest rapport. A strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism has long colored the Greek side of the relationship, stemming from U.S. support for the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 and perceived American backing of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974. American officials, meanwhile, have often seen Greece as a troublesome North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally—overly friendly with Russia (and Serbia) during the Bosnian war; constantly complaining about the threat from Turkey, a fellow NATO member long seen as vital to U.S. interests; and more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to Israel.

This has been especially true when left-of-center governments have ruled Greece. In 1985, during the reign of socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, Islamic militants hijacked a TWA jetliner shortly after it took off from Athens, separated passengers with “Jewish sounding names,” and murdered a U.S. navy diver, dumping his body on the tarmac in Beirut. To punish Greece for its alleged lax airport security—and Papandreou for palling around with Yasir Arafat—the Reagan administration issued a travel warning to Greece that hurt the country’s tourism trade.

So four years ago, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the far-left Syriza party—a man who led street protests when President Bill Clinton visited Athens in 1999—came to power in the middle of a debt-fueled economic crisis, almost everyone expected another acrimonious chapter in the U.S.-Greek relationship.

In fact, the opposite has happened: anti-Americanism has almost completely evaporated among the Greek public; military relations between the two countries are stronger than they’ve ever been, with the U.S. increasing its use of Greek air and naval bases; and U.S. officials hailing Tsipras earlier this year for signing a politically unpopular deal that ends a decades-long dispute with its northern neighbor, paving the way for the newly named Republic of North Macedonia to join NATO.

But perhaps most astonishingly, over the last several years Greece has become a close friend of Israel. The two countries have established a fully-fledged alliance in which they conduct joint military exercises and coordinate on security operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are also now collaborating to build a $7 billion gas pipeline from Israeli and Cypriot gas fields through Crete and into Italy, in order to create a mechanism of distribution to other European countries.

The reasons for this surprising turnaround are manifold. President Barack Obama won Greek hearts and minds when he pushed for Greece’s European lenders to ease up on austerity measures and provide “meaningful debt relief” for the recession-battered country. And as the Syrian civil war spiraled out of control and Turkey descended toward authoritarianism, Greece became a more valuable military and diplomatic ally in the Eastern Mediterranean. What’s more, in February, ExxonMobil made the world’s biggest natural gas discovery in two years off the Greek and Cypriot coasts, giving these two small countries even more geo-strategic significance.

Greece’s elevated importance—coupled with other developments in the region—was instrumental in getting Israel to go all-in on the relationship. The immediate impetus, however, came in May 2010, when Israeli commandos raided six Turkish flotilla ships heading to Gaza and killed 10 Turkish activists. Relations between Israel and Turkey soon began to crumble, and Israel feared that Erdogan would turn his nation into an adversarial power. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to strike alliances with other countries in the Balkans. Then, in 2011, Cyprus discovered nearby massive gas reserves, upping Greece and Cyprus’s value as regional partners. Before the end of the year, the Trilateral Alliance—between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus—was born.

In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participated in the three countries’ sixth annual summit, where they all agreed to “increase regional cooperation” and “defend against external malign influences in the Eastern Mediterranean and the broader Middle East.” One month later, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez introduced a bill to provide more support for the alliance through allocating more military aid to Greece and Cyprus, creating a new regional energy center for the allied countries, and lifting the prohibition on arms sales to Cyprus. “We’re all working together now in a very good way,” Evangelos Apostolakis, the new Greek defense minister, told me in a recent interview in Washington. Now, with firm U.S. backing and involvement, it’s the Trilateral Plus One.

As Turkey has become a more erratic actor and less reliable partner for the United States and Israel, it has also escalated tensions with Greece and Cyprus. In May, Turkey announced a plan to begin offshore drilling in Cypriot waters, which the State Department warned was “highly provocative.” That followed its October 2018 decision to drill off the coast of Antalya. These actions, analysts have warned, could create the conditions for a direct military confrontation between Greece and Turkey. Apostolakis said he thought that was unlikely—and that his main objective was to avoid such an outcome. “Greece’s firm policy and desire is the peaceful co-existence with its neighbors,” he said. “We have to do everything that is necessary to [avoid] that type of conflict.”

Whether they can keep the peace remains to be seen, but Erdogan’s increasingly hostile posturing, and cozy relationship with Russia and Iran, has created a new alignment of interests that once seemed unimaginable. Just as Israel and Greece have clashed with Turkey in recent years, U.S.-Turkish relations have been at odds. Last month, Ankara said it planned to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. The Trump administration threatened to retaliate by kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program and imposing sanctions.

There’s old proverb: the enemy of your enemy is your friend. This aphorism, when applied to the Middle East, has often obfuscated the complexity of the region. But in the case of Israel’s ties to Greece, it’s largely true. As Turkey has become a mutual enemy, the two nations have had reason to develop a friendship. And with Turkey encroaching on the Eastern Mediterranean’s vast gas reserves—while seeking to acquire more advanced weaponry from a major American adversary—southeast Europe has become a geo-political hotspot where multiple countries have a stake in restraining aggressive and provocative Turkish behavior.

For Israel, the trilateral relationship’s main advantage is the way it can help prevent Tehran from spreading its influence through Turkey. Israel likely also sees the partnership as an extra mechanism to block potential Iranian supply chains of weaponry, goods, and artillery into Lebanon and Gaza. Greece and Cyprus, however, accurately saw Israel as a country that could help them get closer to the United States. Apostolakis admitted as much when I asked whether that was part of the calculus for cultivating the alliance: “Yes, Israel is always very, very important, and everyone who is supporting Israel is also supporting the United States—it’s interests in the region.”

In just a few weeks, Greece will hold its next elections. Polls show Tsipiras on track for a clear defeat to his chief rival, Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the center-right New Democracy Party. But even if Mitsotakis wins on July 7, he’s expected to maintain the same policy toward the United States and Israel—and not disrupt the gains that have been made.

Through a confluence of circumstances, and the emergence of the Trilateral Plus One, Greece has become a pivotal player at a time when the need to maintain stability and energy security in the Eastern Mediterranean has become more central to U.S. foreign policy. It just may be creating a new dynamic that could reshape the region. “With this cooperation,” Apostokalis said, “we found out that we are very useful to each other.”

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.