Greece-Turkey Confrontation

7 m.   |  2020-08-21

A look from Israel

T he military-political support provided by Israel to Greece in the Ankara-Athens confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean acquires the nature of substantive and direct involvement. The experts consider this unprecedented, as in recent months Tel Aviv has been mainly behind the maturation of the crisis between the parties. In mid-June 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The meeting was followed by the joint press conference of the Prime Ministers of the two countries. Netanyahu mentioned in a joint statement: “These relations between Greek and Israeli are very natural. First, we have an ancient history of closeness: Jerusalem and Athens are the pillars of Western civilization and we are proud to share that heritage.

Second, it is strange that for some reason our two modern democracies located on the edge of the Eastern Mediterranean did not have close and natural relations. Therefore, once we established that relations, everything else worked on its right direction. We have common interests, we face common problems and there are common exceptional opportunities….

There is security cooperation, including joint military exercises and now there are various security projects, through which we can develop the cooperation for ensuring stability and security in the region. It also applies to cybersecurity and our joint efforts in this matter, as well as the exchange of intelligence in every possible area, which will allow our democracies to strive for peace and stability in the region.

The possibilities are comprehensive. They include physical resources and mental work outcomes. Gas is the obvious physical resource: we as well as Cyprus have significant gas resources in the coastal area. And our most important project which we have thoroughly discussed and are keep on discussing is the construction of the East-Med gas pipeline. It will unite Israeli and Cyprus gas mines, through Cyprus and Greece to Europe” [1],[2].

Joint press conference between Israeli and Greece Prime Ministers


In mid-August, 2020, Israel expressed its official support to Greece over tensions with Turkey in the issue of dispute and confrontation of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EZZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israeli Foreign Ministry made an official statement on it: Lior Haiat, Spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote on his Twitter page, that Israel closely follows the escalation of tensions in Eastern Mediterranean: “Israel expresses its full support and solidarity with Greece in its maritime zones and its right to delimit its EEZ” [3].

Shortly after Israel’s official statement, Israeli Ambassador to Greece Yossi Amrani met with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. The latter, in turn announced, that he was planning to visit Israel on August 13 and meet with the Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi [4]. It was obvious that the key topic of meeting agenda was the military-political situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s illegal actions [5],[6]. During the meeting, the sides discussed issues of further development of relations in the fields of innovation, trade, tourism, energy (including the EastMed gas pipeline construction project). The Ministers highlighted the importance of deepening strategic and political relations between Israel and Greece and the continuation of cooperation in the regional and international context [7].

It should be noted that the substantive messages of Tel Aviv are directly conditioned by the arrival of Turkish warships in the Eastern Mediterranean early in August 2020. Ankara justifies this step by need to protect Turkish drilling research mission in the coastal area. Ankara actually tries to control these zones under an agreement signed with Libya in November 2019, which clarified Turkish and Libyan EEZs in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The agreement on the Mediterranean borders’ demarcation, as it was expected, was criticized by Greek, Cyprus and Israeli leaders. And the obvious dissatisfaction of the latter was understandable: Turkish-Libyan memorandum on border demarcation in the Mediterranean obviously hinders the implementation of the EastMed gas pipeline project. Based on the project, the gas pipeline should pass through the intersection of the EEZs defined by Turkey and Libya.

The EEZs of Turkey and Libya according to the signed bilateral agreement.

Erdogan justifies this step by the fact that Turkey has the longest coast in the Mediterranean Sea, which according to him, allows to have adequate political and legal ambitions in this region. Turkish-Libyan agreement on demarcation of maritime borders stimulates legal process of demarcation of the EEZs between the countries of opposite polarity. Early in August 2020, Greece and Egypt, in turn, signed an agreement, designating their EEZs in the Eastern Mediterranean as opposed to Turkey [8].

After the joint press conference with Greece Foreign Minister in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry announced: “This agreement allows both countries to move forward in maximizing the utilization of the resources available in the exclusive economic zone, especially promising oil and gas reserves” [9].

Diplomats in Greek mention, that the agreement with Egypt invalidates Turkey-Libya agreement [10]. Egypt, in turn, has great expectations for becoming a regional hub: in January 2020, Cairo formed with other countries the so-called Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum with the aim to develop the region’s gas market. The forum includes Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine [11].

In June 2020, Greece and Italy also signed an agreement on maritime boundaries, establishing an exclusive economic zone between the two countries and resolving longstanding issues over fishing rights in the Ionian Sea [12].

It should be noted, that Greece has recently taken a firm and tough stance on resisting Ankara’s encroachments over the EEZs of the Eastern Mediterranean: Athens openly stated its readiness to strike Turkish warships if necessary. On this occasion, the Greek Armed Forces were brought to a high level of readiness related with Turkey’s intention to start drilling near the island of Castelorizo: Turkish air force also became more active in the area. On Tuesday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias urged Turkey to withdraw a vessel from the Greek continental shelf: "Greece will defend its sovereignty and its rights. We are calling on Turkey to immediately leave the Greek continental shelf" [13].

According to Greek sources, a small incident took place in mid-August between the Greek and Turkish navies. Erdogan stated that Greek navy attacked Turkish research ship Oruc Reis, to which Turkish warships responded [14].

In addition to the recent political dialogue, the cooperation between Greece and Israel in the fields of security and military is quite effective. The issue of military cooperation with Greece became one of the most important issues on the agenda of decision-makers and leading think tanks in Israel. This speaks to the reconsideration of Israeli policy strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean: previously Tel Aviv didn’t play a significant role in regional issues in the Mediterranean [15].