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Israel woos Greece after rift with Turkey

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

image captionIsrael's storming of the Gaza-bound flotilla in May caused a storm of protests across Turkey

Earlier this week the Israeli Air Force completed a series of exercises with its Greek counterpart - a sign of the growing links between the two countries.

But more than this, it is an indication of the changing political geography of the eastern Mediterranean.

The exercise involved Israeli Apache and Black Hawk helicopters operating alongside Greek Air force helicopters and jets.

Israel relies heavily on its advanced air power but has very limited airspace of its own in which to train.

Israeli helicopters have flown in Romania - one large CH-53 helicopter crashed there in July with the loss of several lives - and the Israeli Air Force has held many exercises in Turkey.

But no longer.

Ever since Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-owned, Gaza-bound vessel the Mavi Marmara back in May - killing several Turkish nationals in the ensuing struggle - relations between Israel and Ankara have been in the freezer.

Joint military exercises have been abandoned and this week a Turkish minister indicated his country would boycott an international tourism conference due to be held in Jerusalem.

Unless Israel bows to Turkish demands for a full apology and compensation, normal ties are unlikely to be resumed.

So over recent months Israel has been significantly reinforcing its friendship with Greece.

The prime ministers of each country have exchanged visits.

There are even hopes - you could call them maybe "pipe-dreams" - that one day Israeli natural gas might be exported to Europe via a terminal in Greece.

But this new friendship, while no doubt sincere, is prompted in large part by the worsening ties between Israel and Turkey.

The collapse of the strategic relationship with Turkey is bad news for Israel.

The full extent of the ties has never been revealed but they are known to have had military, intelligence and economic dimensions.

Turkey has been a major arms purchaser from Israel and it has drawn on Israel's counter-insurgency doctrines for its own struggles against the Kurds.

Given Turkey's geographical position, just to the north of Syria and with its western border just touching Iran, the undisclosed intelligence co-operation may be the element of the relationship that Israel misses most.

The strains between Tel Aviv and Ankara have caused alarm in Washington, which is far from happy to see its two main military allies in the region drifting apart.

image captionIsrael's air force needs foreign partners for its training programme

But in truth things were changing even before the Mavi Marmara episode.

Israel's strongest allies in Turkey were within the Turkish military and under the Islamist government of the AKP Party, their influence in the country is in decline.

Ties with Greece can provide vital exercise space for the Israeli Air Force.

They can provide tourism and other economic benefits for both countries.

Israeli commentators are trying to put the best face on it all.

Oded Eran of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University noted in a recent paper that "perhaps the neo-Hellenist option (Greece) does not fully replace the strategic assets lost with the disintegration of the neo-Ottoman option (Turkey), but it embodies much interesting potential that is well worth cultivating".

That may well be true. But it cannot compensate Israel for the loss of a key strategic partner in Ankara, whose gaze is now much more strongly directed towards the Arab world.

More on this story

  • Has Israel lost key Muslim ally Turkey?