Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled Nov. 12 to Nicosia and held strategic discussions on security matters with his counterparts from Greece and Cyprus. Meetings focused on developing and deepening security collaborations between the three countries, alongside examining regional challenges, officials said. Gantz also discussed Israeli arms sales with his counterparts.
Gantz tweeted after meeting with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and with his defense minister counterparts — Charalambos Petrides of Cyprus and Nikos Panagiotopoulos of Greece — "The alliance between Israel-Cyprus-Greece is stronger than ever. We will advance broad security cooperation that will strengthen our defense capabilities and create thousands of jobs in each of the three countries.’’
The meeting came two weeks after a similar trilateral meeting Oct. 27 in Athens of the country's foreign ministers, Israel's Gabi Ashkenazi, Greece's Nikos Dendias and Cyprus' Nikos Christodoulides. After the meeting, Ashkenazi said he considered regional cooperation to be “a central strategic component for ensuring peace, stability and economic prosperity.’’ He added, "I plan to personally act to promote economic cooperation between the countries to connect strategic infrastructure, like the electric grid … and the East-Med [pipeline] initiative.’’
In June, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Jerusalem for the fourth government-to-government meeting between Israel and Greece. After he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two leaders signed three memorandums of understanding, on cyber issues, agriculture and tourism.
The frequency of these trilateral and bilateral meetings in person — particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic — highlights the trend whereby Greece, Cyprus and Israel are reinforcing ties involving security, energy, economic and the battle against the coronavirus-battle. It is a real strategic alliance, and one which has received Washington’s blessing. Gantz will no doubt share his insights from the tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when the latter arrives in Israel next week.
The Nov. 12 trilateral defense meeting comes as tensions between Ankara and Athens continue to escalate, especially in the Mediterranean. More so, tensions are also escalating between Ankara and Washington. In September, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a robust arms purchase program amid tensions with Turkey. Shortly after, the United States approved the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Greece. With Israel and Turkey at odds for almost a decade, Jerusalem shares with Athens and with Nicosia a whole series of common interests.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been collaborating with the armies of Greece and of Cyprus for several years now, in both bilateral and international frameworks. In 2013, Israel hosted for the first time the Blue Flag biennial exercise, aimed at expanding international cooperation. Among the foreign forces participating in Blue Flag was the Greek air force. A follow-up air drill took place in 2015, pitting Israel, Greece, Poland and the United States against a fictional enemy state. Blue Flag drills also took place in 2017 and 2019.
In 2017, the Israeli air force participated in the joint exercise Iniohos in Greece, together with the United Arab Emirates, Italy and the United States. A second Inionos drill took place in April 2019. In November 2017, the Israeli navy was invited by the Greek navy to participate in a NATO exercise, together with navy crews from Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, the UK and the United States. Israeli and Greek air forces have also been cooperating bilaterally. A joint exercise in Israel took place in December 2016, and a similar one in Greek skies in 2018. The list goes on.
Cyprus' military, which is smaller than Greece's, has extensive cooperation with the IDF. For instance, in December 2019, Israeli special forces carried out a large training exercise on Cyprus, simulating warfare in the island’s rocky regions. In September the two countries held three-day joint military maneuvers.
A senior Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the East-Med natural gas pipeline project advanced in recent years has greatly contributed to strengthening diplomatic and economic ties between the three countries. She also noted the strong political willingness on all three sides to open borders and create traveling corridors during the pandemic period. ‘’The interests of Israel, Greece and Cyprus converge on so many levels. And more than anything else, it brings Israel into the circle of the Mediterranean basin club.’’