Greece said Tuesday it had approved a landmark $1.68 billion deal with Israel, providing for the procurement of 10 state-of-the-art jet fighters and training of pilots as the government in Athens upgrades its defenses, mainly against its longtime foe Turkey.
The deal, which both sides are set to sign in the coming weeks, marks the biggest defense agreement between Greece and Israel since Athens began shifting its pro-Arab outlook and stance in the Middle East some 20 years ago.
“The Israelis do not trust easily, especially in the field of defense,” said Costas Filis, a professor of international relations in Athens. “So, this deal is not only important for the qualitative edge it will give Greece’s new generation of pilots and armed forces as a whole, but because of the serious message it puts out – that a solid and new depth of relations has been consolidated between Athens and Jerusalem.”
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the deal would “serve the interests of both Israel and Greece, creating hundreds of jobs in both countries … promoting stability in the Mediterranean.”
Tensions with Turkey
Under the agreement, Israel will provide 10 Mavi M-346 trainer aircraft, together with simulators and logistical support as part of the 20-year-deal, according to the Greek Defense Ministry. Israel’s Elbit Systems will also set up a flight school to train Greek air force pilots in Kalamata, south of Athens.
In recent years, Greece has leased drones from Israel to boost surveillance of its porous borders with Turkey, mainly along the Aegean waterway that divides the two neighbor states but serves as the main gateway for illegal immigration to Europe. Last year, Greece and Israel also joined forces with Cyprus to build a 1,900-kilometer undersea pipeline to carry natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean’s rapidly developing gas fields to Europe.
The energy deal, plus others carved out by nations girdling the oil- and gas-rich region have been largely opposed by Turkey, which has sent out survey ships in recent months, exploring untapped energy potentials in areas Greece claims it has exclusive rights to exploit.
NATO allies Greece and Turkey have long challenged each other's air and sea rights in the region, coming to the brink of war over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean exactly 25 years ago. Since then, relations have seesawed, swinging to the lowest point in recent months in response to the energy standoff in the eastern Mediterranean.
With tensions still high, the government in Athens has announced plans to purchase a grab bag of new warplanes, frigates, helicopters, and weapons systems, from sources including the United States and France.
“There is no doubt that many of these energy deals and alliances that have been formed over the past year have spawned from a growing concern and distrust of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” Filis told VOA. “But this defense deal with Israel,” he said, “is not about teaming up against Turkey. In fact, quite the opposite.”
For decades, Israel and Turkey were among the staunchest of allies, largely promoting, as Filis put it, “U.S. policy interests in the greater region.”
Relations collapsed in 2010, however, after an Israeli naval raid on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza left 10 activists dead. Despite years of acrimony, Erdogan has shown signs of wanting to rekindle relations – a move some analysts says is linked to the election of a new U.S. president anticipated to be less friendly to the Turkish president than outgoing President Donald Trump.
“Sure, there is lingering distrust of Erdogan from the Israeli – and U.S. -- side,” Filis said.
“But that does not mean that Israel wants to push Turkey away. It has long been instrumental in the region and will continue to be. And there is no doubt that relations between the two countries will be restored to the point they were years ago.
“It is in Greece’s true interest, therefore, to be seated well in this developing geopolitical play, especially with the Israeli side,” he said.
It remains unclear whether improved relations between Turkey and Israel can ease tensions between Greece and Turkey. Still, the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is gaining pace fast.
In recent weeks, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, held numerous meetings with top Israeli defense officials, including the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. What is more, Erdogan has signaled his intent to restore diplomatic ties with Israel after expelling Jerusalem’s top envoy in Turkey in 2018 after 60 Palestinians were killed in violent protests on the Gaza border. Erdogan lashed out at Israel at the time, calling it a “terrorist state” responsible for the Gaza “genocide.”
He has yet to rescind those remarks.