While Western and Turkish media outlets harped in the last two weeks on Israel's loss of its only Muslim ally in the Middle East, Jerusalem was busy acquiring a new strategic partner – Greece, another NATO member with plenty of Middle East interests, who was perfectly willing to step into Turkey's shoes and invest in stronger military and intelligence ties.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Athens and Jerusalem report that this development was not so much planned in Jerusalem as it was initiated by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who boasts many Jewish and Israeli friends and business contacts, some of whom hold high political and intelligence positions in Israel. He saw a chance for Athens to slot into Ankara's place in Jerusalem and transform their present diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence ties into a thriving strategic alliance, as advantageous to both sides as were Israel's former relations with Turkey.
According to some sources, Papandreou expects this alliance to extricate Greece from its financial woes, aside from looking to Israel's help for speeding up the upgrade of his armed forces and helping transform them into the Christian mainstay of NATO in the Balkans and southern Europe – in place of the Muslim Turkish army.
This notion was not the outcome of Israel's break with Turkey or the clash aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara on May 31 between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian Turkish activists. It has been evolving for some time, first broached in the summer of 2008 when Papandreou allowed 100 Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers to pass through Greek Mediterranean air space for practicing long flights and in-flight fueling.
The distance between Israel and Greece there and back is 1,900 kilometers, identical to the distance between Israel and Iran.
A strategic partner made welcome in Athens
The Greek prime minister went out of his way to be of assistance, making available to the Israeli Air Force the crews and advanced S-300 PMU1interceptor missile batteries Athens purchased from Russia back in 2000. They were allowed to practice bombing sorties against these batteries, in case Moscow decided to sell them to Iran and Syria.
The severe financial crisis besetting Greece this year enhanced the friendly ties between Athens and Jerusalem. While European Union countries spent long months discussing whether to bale Greece out and save it from collapse (eventually granting a €110 billion package), Papandreou turned to Jewish financial titans in Europe and the United States for help to keep the Greek economy afloat.
The new strategic alliance has produced immediate benefits for Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report the Greek prime minister took upon himself to keep key Mediterranean ports out of bounds to ships en route to confrontations with Israel's Navy over its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. He made personal appeals to the prime ministers of Lebanon, Cyprus and Malta to prevent those vessels docking and taking on supplies and fuel or departing for Gaza from their ports.
He also worked behind the scenes in Brussels to sell EU leaders on the step negotiated between Quartet envoy former British prime minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for opening the Gaza crossings to civilian goods while keeping the sea blockade in place.
Papandreou's influence was crucial in obtaining the EU's tacit acceptance of the deal.
It was also instrumental in persuading Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who, with his Saudi sponsors has extensive investments in the Greek shipping industry, to confidentially ask Cypriot and Maltese leaders to close their ports to the Gaza-bound vessels.
Turkish generals alarmed by military benefits Israel can confer on Greece
Papandreou's intercession in the flotilla crisis left Turkish and Iranian ports as the only remaining departure points for Gaza-bound vessels and held up preparations for the next ships to set sail.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is reluctant for Turkey to stand out as the only country bent on a showdown with Israel and is thinking twice about following up the first flotilla. Even Hizballah is hesitating.
He is already facing angry criticism from large sections of Turkey's financial, diplomatic, military and intelligence communities over his anti-Israeli stance and total alignment with Tehran and Damascus. And Turkish generals are alarmed by the nascent strategic ties between Jerusalem and Athens, warning their prime minister that the Greek armed forces will benefit from the upgrade of its weapons, standards of combat and technological capabilities and soon outstrip Turkey and be hard to handle.
Erdogan was also alerted by his military and intelligence chiefs to the harm Israeli-Greek intelligence cooperation could wreak to Turkish interests and plans in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Caucasian regions.
These warnings have given the Turkish prime minister pause, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Ankara report. He has suspended some of his overt moves against Israel, but not so far given up on his anti-Israel policies.
For now, he is looking for a way to get around the evolving Greek-Israeli partnership. Our Jerusalem sources, for their part, report this partnership looks set to prosper and generate a spate of joint activities, most of them discreet.