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Israel's ties with Greece grow as relation with Turkey cools

From Izzy Lemberg, CNN
  • The visit of Greece's foreign minister follows joint military exercises and prime minister visits
  • The Israeli public also has shifted its attention away from Turkey toward Greece
  • Greek official sees no competition in his nation's relations with Israel and Turkey

Jerusalem (CNN) -- This week's visit of Greek Foreign Minister Dmityris Droutsas to Israel marks another step in what the Israeli media is calling a "blossoming romance" between the two countries.

The warming has intensified amid Israel's deteriorating relations with Turkey, Greece's historical rival.

Droutsas' visit, which includes the signing of an aviation agreement between the two countries, comes several days after the nations held joint military exercises in southern Israel, and follows earlier visits by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Athens and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to Jerusalem.

Israel and Turkey had been strategic allies, with the countries' militaries cooperating closely. But that relationship began to experience strains after a dispute over Israel's assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza in January of 2009, and was seriously damaged when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish-flagged ship carrying humanitarian supplies as it tried to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. Nine Turkish nationals were killed.

Greek-Israeli relations had been viewed in Israel as being somewhat cold, as Greece was seen as having a pro-Palestinian stance. But amid the cooling of the Turkish-Israeli relationship, the view changed.

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post on the eve of his visit, Droutsas was asked if this is a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." He downplayed the idea.

"We don't see any competitive dimension between the relationship we are developing with Israel and our relationship with Turkey," he said. "This is because each of these relationships has its own dynamic and its own historical background. What we are doing is writing new pages in the history of Greek-Israeli relations."

At a brief ceremony Monday where the aviation agreement was signed, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, "These kinds of relations can be very helpful, not only for this country, but the whole region."

Most analysts agree that the value of Israel's relationship with a large and powerful Islamic country like Turkey, strategically situated in a volatile region, cannot be replaced. But warmer ties with other countries might help lessen the impact of the loss.

Davis Horovitz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, told CNN that "Israel does not see Greece as a replacement for Turkey, but it is determined in her quest to widen warm relations with potentially compensatory players."

Many in the Israeli public, however, seem to be viewing Greece as a natural replacement for Turkey, at least on a personal level if not a political one.

Israelis, who are generally barred from traveling to most Arab counties, had been flocking to Turkey, enjoying budget vacation packages without having to travel far afield. But this year, Turkish officials say, Israeli tourism is down 90 percent.

Turkey's loss became Greece's gain, Israeli tour operators say, with a large number of people changing their destination.

Greece welcomed the shift, which came as its economic woes kept away many European tourists, who feared strikes in the economically beleaguered country.

That shift may have been eased by the fact that the Israeli public already had a cultural affinity to Greece. Traditional Greek music is huge in Israel, with Israeli fans closely following Greek music and its stars. Some Greek musicians who perform in Israel have even learned to sing some of their hits in Hebrew for the benefit of their Israeli fans.

The rift with Turkey began with Israel's 2009 assault on Gaza -- aimed at stopping rocket attacks. It brought harsh criticism from the international community, which accused Israel of using excessive force.

At the time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily stormed out of a public appearance he had with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos Economic Forum, accusing Israel of war crimes. Turkey also refused to participate in planned joint military exercises with Israel and the United States.

Then came the assault on the Turkish-flagged ship by Israeli commandos and the deaths of the nine Turkish nationals. Israel says it acted in self-defense, accusing the Turkish activists of using violence against the Israeli soldiers. Turkey says the attack was unprovoked and has demanded an official apology from Israel.

Since the incident the Turkish prime minister has been issuing harsh public criticism of Israel.