In the 21st chapter of his magisterial 1948 history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill began with an arresting statement: ‘The Greeks rival the Jews in being the most politically-minded race in the world.’
In his distinctive tongue-in-cheek yet insightful style, he explained:
‘Wherever there are three Jews there will be found two Prime Ministers and one leader of the Opposition. The same is true of this other famous ancient race, whose stormy and endless struggle for life stretches back to the fountain springs of human thought.’
Seventy-three years after they were written, these racial generalisations may ring dissonant in certain 21st century ears. But they resonated this week, when Israel and Greece confirmed their growing friendship with their largest ever defence deal, including an eye-watering £1.2 billion contract for a new Hellenic Air Force training centre.
The alliance of the two nations – emerging after years of Greek hostility towards the Jewish state – seemed to encapsulate both the ‘endless struggle for life’ and the ‘political-mindedness’ that Churchill had identified. And they formed an object lesson for other European states, which will continue to court Iran in Vienna this week.
Take Churchill’s ‘endless struggle for life’. In the past two years, Greece has suffered increasing hostility from Turkey. There have been serious cyber attacks, belligerence from Ankara’s coast guard and navy, provocative incursions into disputed oil and gas fields, and the closing of Turkish airspace to Greek officials. Further afield, from Syria to the caucuses, Erdoğan is emerging as a Putin-style meddler and Athens is increasingly nervous. A Greek bond with Israel, the Middle East’s foremost military power, makes sense.
From Israel’s point of view, Turkey has been mutating in recent years into a strategic foe. Last August, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen publicly named the country as a threat to regional peace. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which began the following month, became a diplomatic flashpoint between the two states, as each blamed the other for destabilising the region. Forming the backdrop to this was Turkey’s strong alliance with Qatar, the sponsor of Hamas, and its opposition to the UAE, now Israel’s firmest regional ally, in several theatres.
But it is Churchill’s ‘political-mindedness’ from which the other European states may learn. In the early Eighties, Greece was alone among Western powers in refusing to have a relationship with Israel. Athens consistently voted against the Jewish state at the UN; maintained friendly ties with the PLO; had not sent a minister to visit Jerusalem since the birth of Israel in 1948; and was seen to be tolerant of terror.
But relations improved with the change in Greek political weather in the Nineties. Today, cooperation is far-ranging. This has been of huge benefit to both sides. In addition to regular political and military dialogue at the highest levels, the two countries now cooperate in technological and energy innovation, tourism initiatives and defence collaboration.
In the aftermath of the Abraham Accords, the benefits of closer ties with Israel have taken on a wider geopolitical significance. For European powers, better relations with friendly Gulf states can now be achieved through the diplomatic bridge of Israel, the world’s only Middle Eastern, Western-style democracy.
The Greeks have been the first to understand this. A fortnight ago, there was a historic, quadrilateral summit in Paphos. Not only was it attended by Greece, Cyprus and Israel, but there was also a delegation from the UAE. This was a direct strategic result of the peace agreements that were signed in the White House last year – and they benefited Greece and Cyprus as much as Israel.
As Britain’s most famous Prime Minister wrote:
‘No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem... Personally, I have always been on the side of both.’
If the other European powers can stop bending the knee to Iran, there could be more delegations around the table next time.