Greek-Israeli Strategic Partnership in an Era of Uncertainty

Article published on Feb. 25, 2011
Article published on Feb. 25, 2011
by Vassilios Damiras, Defense Consultant in the United States Greece and Israel are very old nations with extremely rich and complicated history.

Specifically, since the Ulysses and Moses periods these two Mediterranean nations have been associated with all the crucial historical developments and ethnic and biblical struggles in the eastern Mediterranean region and the wider Balkan and the Middle East regions. Thus, both Greek and Israelis feel very proud for their respective historical and cultural achievements throughout the centuries.

The Jewish Zionist movement that was created and established in the late 19th century by Theodore Herzl had very similar characteristics with the Greek irredentist movement of “Great Idea.” Also, both nations have triumphed as Diaspora in various countries across the globe. Moreover, both ethnic groups have been occupied by the Ottomans. Furthermore, Greeks and Jews controlled and influenced the economic life of the Ottoman Empire.

After the recognition of the state of Israel in 1948, by the United States of America under the guidance of President Harry S. Truman and until 1991, the Greek political and social establishments perceived Israel as a major antagonist force in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Athens followed a more pro-Arab stance that vividly illustrated the strong dependence of Greece had on crude oil from various Arab countries. These Arab nation-states in 1970s had imposed an oil embargo to United States and Western Europe in order to curtail or stop the pro-Israeli stance.

Greek-Israeli diplomatic relations were stagnant for nearly forty-five years. The first wind of some significant change started to take place in 1995, due to several significant factors. One was Greece’s policy to increase its diplomatic deterrent power vis-a-vis Turkey. Another element was the death of the pro-PLO Greek socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou in June 1996. Papandreou was a staunch supporter of the PLO and Yasser Arafat.

During that time PLO extensively utilized Greek territory for its various dubious activities. Even more, the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal and his brutal organization found safe haven in Athens during the time of socialist utopia in Greece. Moreover, Papandreou viewed Israel as an American pawn, with the main goal to assist the various American interests in the region and suppress the self-determination of the Palestinian people.

The improvement and expansion in U.S.-Greece bilateral relations under the Greek socialist Prime Minister Kostas Simitis drastically encouraged a shift toward Israel. Also, the dramatic and significant process in the Middle East peaces negotiations assisted the Greek rapprochement toward of a new era of good diplomatic relations toward Israel.

In September 1998, the then Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai denied Turkish strong request that in case of a Turkish-Greek conflagration, Israel to assist Turkish armed forces and national interest goals. The defense minister said the “Turkish-Israeli cooperation is not against any other country.” That statement encouraged the Greek side to enhance its economic and trade relationship with Israel.

In addition, the considerable betterment in relations between the two nation-states was depicted in the substantial increase in trade which doubled in the 1990s. Israel became the second largest importer of Greek products. In 2004, the figures were roughly $ 242 million for Israel and approximately $142 for Greece. Also, many Israelis close to 120,000 started visited Greece during summer times. The then Israeli President Moshe Katzav said: "we consider Greece an important economic partner of Israel's economy, as well as a gateway to the Balkans.” Another significant event was the opening in the 1990s of a Holocaust Museum in Athens. During the German occupation Greeks assisted Jews to escape the German policy of the final solution.

In May 2010, an event occurred that totally changed the Greek-Israeli bilateral relations. The Gaza flotilla raid also known the flotilla incident of 31 May 2010 was a military attack against six ships of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla.” The flotilla was prepared and organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).

The flotilla was transporting humanitarian aid and construction materials, as well as ballistic vests, gas masks, night vision goggles, and large sum of money. The Israeli authorities proposed inspecting the cargo at the Port of Ashdod and then delivering the non-blockaded goods via various land crossings. However the proposal was refused.

The peace activists replied “Shut up. Go back to Auschwitz.” “Our destination is Gaza.” “We’ve helping the Arabs go against the U.S. Don’t forget 9/11.” Then the Israeli armed forces executed operation, code named Operations Sea Breeze or Operation Sky Winds. It was an attempt to stop the Free Gaza Movement’s ninth attempt to break the controversial Gaza blockade.

The Israelis raid was successful. Israeli Shayetet 13 naval commandos abseiled the ships from various speedboat and helicopters. However, the incident created an era of mistrust between Turkey and Israel. Ankara wants to adopt an image of the protector of Arab national interests. Israel since then started to approach Greece and to establish a strong military and trade relation. The Israel military elite restarted the Greek-Israeli cooperation in military affairs that was signed in December 1994 predating the Turkish-Israeli agreement of February 1996. In addition, Israel has signed various crucial treaties of cooperation with Cyprus. Moreover, the Israeli government has recognized the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Greece and Cyprus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to achieve better relations with Greece in order to seriously counterbalance or even drastically deter an expansion of Turkish influence in the region.

On the Greek side the socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou aims to assist mediation in peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, because Papandreou wants to achieve the image of an assertive regional peace negotiator. In addition, the Greek Prime Minister wants to attract Israeli investment. Greece faces a serious economic crisis due to socio-political corruption. Thus, the Greek economic sector needs foreign investment. Since 2010, both prime ministers have exchanged state visits in order to seal the new epoch of the new Greek-Israeli relationship.

Specifically, for Israeli politico-military establishment, a more robust and vibrant diplomatic relationship with Greece would offer, first and foremost, strategic depth beyond the traditionally restricted space surrounding it. Greece, a full member of the European Union (EU), could also form a very effective conduit for providing a serious and considerable venue to Israel’s diplomatic, economic, and trade relations with the rest of Europe, which are perennially affected and influenced by the ebb and flow of thinly-veiled anti-Jewish attitudes among some of Europe’s member nation-states.

On military issues the Israeli armed forces will have the opportunity to train the Greek armed forces on symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare tactics and various counterintelligence and counterterrorism methods. In addition, Greece will have the option to buy Israeli made weapons, which considered being very effective and lethal.

In more specific terms, Israeli military industry produces a wide range of products from ammunition, a variety of small arms, and various artillery pieces to sophisticated electronics system and the world’s most advanced tank Merkava. The Merkava series dates back 1960s. Furthermore, the industry has design and developed new methods of C4ISTAR: Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance.

The aforementioned technological innovations making the Israeli defense industry and the Israeli armed forces to be considered to be the top best on defense capabilities across the globe on new methods of warfare, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism.

Having to fight five major and barbarous wars in its first four decades Israeli politico-military establishment built a comprehensive and very powerful standing military the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and furnished it with an arsenal of highly advanced hardware and with extreme lethality. Also, the Israeli defense industry throughout the years achieved a very close collaboration and strong partnership with the U.S. defense industry.

Currently, faced with a shrinking market for military hardware over the last decade and a half, Israeli defense concerns and interests have made a serious concerted effort to employ their research and development teams in devising products for non-military markets and, more frequently, in adapting defense technology for various civilian applications. Indeed, many of the most innovative and significant products developed by Israel's civilian high tech industry, especially in the field of telecommunications, trace their origins to military innovation and technology.

The modern defense industry in Israel was set in motion in the early 1920s. Faced by an increasingly hostile Arab population, the Jewish community began to manufacture homemade hand grenades and lethal explosives. In the early 1930s, members of the Haganah (the pre-state Jewish underground defense organization) set up very sophisticated clandestine small arms factories, which became the Israel Military Industries (IMI) in 1948. In the first two decades after independence, IMI designed and produced many of the basic weapons used by the IDF, including the Uzi sub-machine gun. The more costly aircraft and other advanced weapons were procured from foreign suppliers, principally France.

The major catalyst for Israel's metamorphosis from a small-arms manufacturer to a major producer of sophisticated military systems came after the 1967 Six-Day War. During this brutal and vicious war, France imposed an embargo on arms sales to Israel, including the highly modern Mirage planes already on order from the Dassault aircraft factory.

When the United States became the primary supplier of combat aircraft, Israel began to develop its own production capability. The government-owned Israel Aircraft Industries/Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), founded as a maintenance facility in 1953, soon began developing and assembling a variety of its own aircraft, including the Kfir - a replacement for the Mirage - as well as the Arava and Nesher planes. At the same time, IAI's contacts with US suppliers advanced from subcontracting jobs to joint ventures with Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. As a result, employment at IAI grew rapidly from 4,000 to a peak of 14,000 in the late 1980s.

The growing sophistication of Israel's defense industry gave it the confidence to create and develop an all-Israeli military aircraft, the Lavi. Over the first half of the 1980s, IAI developed avionics, electronics and weapons systems for the aircraft, and by 1986 the first prototype had taken to the air. However, the government concluded that it was unable to finance such an ambitious undertaking, and the project was canceled a year later. Shorn of the Lavi project, IAI began to research and develop a variety of products in the military and civilian spheres - such as very advanced radar systems, precision weapon systems, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and commercial and military aircraft conversion - many of which were based on the technology developed during the Lavi project.

Currently, there are approximately 150 defense firms in Israel, with combined revenues of an estimated $3.5 billion. The three largest entities are the government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel Military Industries (IMI), and the Rafael Arms Development Authority, all of which manufacture and produce a wide range of conventional arms and advanced and highly sophisticated defense electronics. The medium-sized privately owned companies include Elbit Systems and the Tadiran Group, which focus mainly on defense electronics, electro-optics systems, and communication systems.

Both companies have also industrial sites in the U.S.A. The smaller firms produce a narrower range of products of extreme sophistication such as, electronics and various counterterrorism security products and systems. In all, the industry employs close to 50,000 people, all of whom share a commitment to high levels of research and development and the ability to make use of the IDF's combat experience. In addition, they produce systems for home land security, training and simulation, and various naval systems.

Israel's defense exports are strictly coordinated and regulated through SIBAT - the Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Organization - which is run by the Ministry of Defense. SIBAT's tasks include licensing all defense exports as well as marketing products developed for the IDF, from electronic components to missile boats and tanks. Each year, SIBAT publishes a defense sales directory, an authoritative guide to what the industry has to offer.

Despite their far-reaching worldwide client base, even the biggest local firms are relatively small players in the global defense market. With increasing competition from the major world aerospace players such as, the American, the Japanese, and various Europeans, Israeli companies tend to specialize in niche markets, or have sought to combine forces through mergers or joint marketing efforts. In addition, declining global defense spending has provided them with new opportunities as foreign governments seek to upgrade their existing arsenal rather than buy new expensive equipment. This policy is typified by the Phantom 2000, a sweeping modernization of the F-4 aircraft that Israel acquired from the US in the early 1970s.

In the wake of the Lavi's cancellation, IAI diversified and expanded with significant funding from the United States, developing the Amos and Ofeq satellites and the world's first operational anti-missile missile system the Arrow. IAI's unmanned air vehicles (UAV or pilotless aircraft) systems, including the Hunter, have now become standard for military establishments in many countries around globe. The company is also engaged in the repair and maintenance of aircraft and helicopters, and in upgrading aircraft with state-of-the-art avionics.

It also designs, develops, and manufacturers naval and ground systems, electronic warfare, radar equipment and missiles. Company sales in 2000 amounted to roughly $2.18 billion, of which exports accounted for around $1.7 billion. In the same year, IAI signed some 1,600 new contracts worth approximately $2.6 billion.

Israel Military Industries (IMI) was founded in 1933, as a secret small-arms plant. After the establishment of the State in 1948, it was operated by the Ministry of Defense, developing and manufacturing assault weapons - from the classic Uzi sub-machine gun to the Tavor assault rifle, heavy ammunition, aircraft and rocket systems armored vehicles like the Merkava tank, and integrated security systems. In 1990, IMI was converted into a government-owned company. Altogether IMI manufactures some 350 products and employs over 4,000 people. In addition to Israel and the U.S., IMI has distributors in a number of countries across the world, including Norway, Belgium, the Philippines and Greece. Some 60% of its revenues, worth approximately $550 million, come from various military exports.

The third government-owned defense firm, the Rafael Arms Development Authority, developed and now manufactures Python and Popeye "smart" airborne missiles, both of which have co-production agreements with major U.S. aerospace companies. In addition, its products include such varied categories as passive armor, naval decoys, observation balloon systems, acoustic torpedo countermeasures, ceramic armor, air-breathing propulsion, and air-to-air, air-to-surface, and surface-to-surface missiles. Moreover, it produces anti-submarine warfare systems, underwater military capabilities systems, short range air defense systems-SPYDER ADS-SR, medium range air defense system-SPYDER ADS-MR, long range multi-purpose tactical missile system-SPIKE LR, medium range multi-purpose tactical missile system-SPIKE-MR, and extended range multi-purpose missile system-SPIKE ER.

Furthermore, Rafael research and develops military technologies for civilian use through its Rafael Development Corp., a joint venture with the private sector Discount Investment Group. One of these crucial projects used miniaturization and guidance techniques to produce a transmitter and camera the size of a vitamin capsule. The capsule is swallowed by a patient and pictures of the gastrointestinal tract are then taken by the camera for use by diagnosticians, substituting for invasive diagnostic procedures. The system, which was developed by Given Imaging, was the brainchild of a missile guidance expert.

The private defense industry Elbit Systems, based in Haifa, develops, manufactures and integrates advanced, high-performance defense electronics systems, focusing on upgrade programs for aircraft and armored vehicles. The company also designs and manufactures command, control and communication (C3) systems, and upgrades in weapons platforms and electronic systems and products for both Western and former Eastern bloc countries. In 2000, Elbit Systems merged with another major private-sector defense concern, El-Op Electro-Optics Industries Ltd, and combined sales reached $591 million, up from $436 million the previous year.

The second major private sector defense firm is the Tadiran-Elisra Group, whose subsidiaries specialize in the development and production of defense electronics. The group's Elisra Electronics offers a range of electronic warfare systems for the military, including radar warning systems, active countermeasure systems, comprehensive self-protection systems, ESM and ELINT systems, and sophisticated communication links complemented by extremely lightweight components and super components. It employs a staff of over 800, two thirds of whom are engineers. Tadiran Electronic Systems designs and produces a wide range of military applications, including intelligence, reconnaissance and electronic warfare and specialized naval communication systems, all tailored to customer specifications. Tadiran Spectralink specializes in pilot-rescue electronic equipment while BVR Systems develops innovative flight simulators for fighter pilots. The group, which is controlled by Koor Industries, announced sales of $284 million in 2000.

In addition to Elbit and Tadiran-Elisra, there are scores of smaller, more specialized defense firms in the private sector, including: Cyclone Aviation, which upgrades helicopters and makes aircraft components; Urdan Industries, which through its Associated Steel Foundries makes many of the components of the Merkava tank; Magal Security Systems, whose products include sensors for security perimeter fences and explosive-detection devices for airports and other public facilities; BVR Technologies, which produces airborne collision-avoidance security systems, trainers for pilots and for the use of "smart" weapons, and a variety of simulators for combat training and pilot debriefing; the Elul Group, a complex of companies which specialize in design, development, and coordination of defense business for Israeli firms abroad, and for international firms in Israel; RSL Electronics, which produces both airborne electronics systems for airplanes and helicopters and muzzle-velocity radar for field artillery; and Soltam, which makes both mortars and heavy artillery pieces as well as Israel's most popular line of stainless steel kitchen equipment.

Since the end of the Cold War, the global defense industry, including the IDF, has had to cope with declining military spending. In response, many private companies have either merged or drastically reduced staff, or diversified into civilian markets, with some companies fully spinning off their civilian activities into separate businesses.

Many of the high technology products designed by Israeli companies for such areas as the Internet, medical electronics and robotics, are based on technology originally developed by the IDF or the defense industries. Friendly and highly sophisticated Robotics is one notable high-tech start-up that traces its origins to the army. Its top executives worked in army technology units and the company's robot lawnmowers are based on advanced missile guidance technology, providing accurate positioning and navigation functions to perform its sensitive and crucial tasks. Among the few private sector defense firms with civilian activities, Elisra designs, develops, and produces electronic and microwave applications for the commercial market.

In 1968, IAI was successful to obtain the rights to manufacture the Jet Commander executive aircraft from the U.S. Company Rockwell, which eventually evolved into the IAI's Astra. In the 1990s, IAI started producing the Galaxy executive jet in partnership with the Pritzker family of Chicago. In April 2001, the international aerospace firm General Dynamics contracted to purchase the Galaxy firm for approximately $600 million. In addition, in the late 1970s Bedek, a division of IAI specializing in aircraft maintenance, began overhauling and refitting Boeing 707 airliners, and today the upgrade of commercial aircraft has become a major business for IAI. The civilian content of the new contracts signed in 2000 was worth approximately $1.1 billion, or 42% of total new contracts. IMI has fewer civilian businesses but has developed technology for electronic wallets and computerized payment systems.

It is evident a strong Greek-Israeli military cooperation will significantly benefit Greece in all sectors such as, economy, commerce, civilian industry, military industry, computer technology, defense planning, and military training.

It is imperative the Greek politico-military system to embrace and benefit for the new era of bilateral relations between Greece and Israel. Greece by potential adopting and buying Israeli defense tactics and materiel could achieve a military edge among NATO member nation-states. Greece will have the opportunity to buy various missile systems and homeland security capabilities. In addition, the Israeli defense industry can upgrade and modernize various old Greek defense systems. It is evident, that this new military and economic edge will give a great opportunity to Greece to expand economically to the wider Balkan area.