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Mediterranean Quarterly 11.4 (2000) 40-70

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Constraints and Adjustments in Greece's Policy toward Israel

Jacob Abadi

Greek-Israeli relations have been cordial over the years, for the most part. However, it was not until 1990 that Greece decided to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, making it the last country in the European Community (EC) to do so. Observers have offered several possible reasons for this belated recognition of the Jewish state. They have suggested that Greece's concern about its ties with the Arab states, whose support it needed on the Cyprus issue, was a major deterrent. In addition, they have argued that Greece's concern for the fate of its nationals in Arab countries and its dependence on Arab oil and investment had dissuaded it from upgrading its relations with Israel. Valid as these factors were, they are only a few pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle. So far, no systematic attempt has been made by analysts to explore all the reasons for this anomaly.

Why Athens thwarted all attempts by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to upgrade bilateral ties is the question that I attempt to answer in this essay. The main argument presented here is that Greek policy makers were constrained by a unique combination of domestic and external pressures, which prevented them from responding favorably to Israel's overtures. I also argue that Greek policy toward Israel was far less hostile than the media in the West, in Israel, and in the Arab states portrayed it.

Greek policy began to change in the mid-1980s, when the enormous pressure exerted by the Greek opponents of rapprochement decreased considerably and the tension in the Arab-Israeli conflict began to subside. Moreover, the changing global environment, which resulted from the collapse of the [End Page 40] Soviet Union and the rise of the United States as the only great power, had a salutary effect on Greek-Israeli relations. Only by examining these changes can one understand why Greece refrained from upgrading its relations with Israel for so long.

The Early Years

Despite the short distance separating the two countries, Greece and Israel historically have had little in common. For the most part, Greeks have seemed indifferent toward Jews and Israel. Such indifference was apparent even during the Nazi Holocaust, when the news about the mass extermination of Jews became known in Greece. Commenting on the Greek media's response to the plight of the Jews during that period, one writer who explored the topic says,

Jewry in Salonika, which accounted for one-fifth of the total prewar population, had been utterly wiped out. During this time--and there were no excuses for libel against the Jews--we observe an almost tangible silence in the daily and periodical press. The illegal newspaper of the Greek communist resistance movement [EAM], Eleftheria, printed only brief news announcements on its fourth page. Generally speaking, the genocide of the Jews does not appear to have moved Salonican writers to literary composition. 1

However, despite the general attitude of indifference, there were many Greeks who risked their lives to prevent the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. The Greek government endeavored to save Jews whenever possible, although largely due to British pressure, it prohibited the use of Greek vessels to transport refugees to Palestine during the Second World War. 2

Greece was among the countries that voted against the 1947 Partition [End Page 41] Plan for Palestine. However, Greek attitude in this matter was determined by national interest and was by no means a byproduct of anti-Semitism. The Greek government was concerned about the fate of its citizens in the Arab world, in Egypt in particular. In addition, it had to protect the status of the Greek Orthodox Church and its patriarchs in Alexandria, Aleppo, and Jerusalem. This factor weighed so heavily on Greek policy toward the Middle East that when U.S. president Harry Truman's assistant, David K. Niles, attempted to convince the Greek government to vote for the resolution, his arguments fell on deaf ears. In vain did...


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