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Greece's Relations with Israel, 1961–1967

On 29 November 1947 Greece voted in the U.N. General Assembly against the resolution for the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state. Greece's opposition to partition had a number of causes. The Arab states, headed by Egypt, threatened Greece that if it supported the partition plan, severe measures would be taken against members of the large Greek community in Egypt, against Greeks in other Arab states and against Greek interests in the Middle East, particularly the Greek Orthodox church which had many followers and a large amount of property in the region. As well as these pressures, economic factors also played a role. Greece bought most of its oil consumption from the Arab states, which were an important market for its agricultural and industrial products. Businessmen, shipping magnates and contractors who were active in Arab countries formed a powerful pro-Arab lobby. [See Moshe Gilboa, "The background to Greece's recognition of Israel", The Ministry for Foreign Affairs, The First Fifty Years, Part 1, Jerusalem 2002, pp. 377–379 (Hebrew).]

After the State of Israel was established in May 1948, on 15 March 1949 Greece gave it de facto recognition only, and three years later, in 1952, diplomatic relations were established at the lowest level – that of a diplomatic representation. (Greece had a consulate-general in Jerusalem, a legacy from the British Mandate period. From 1952 on the consul-general also served as the diplomatic representative).

Up till 1961 Israel's efforts to bring about de jure recognition by Greece and an exchange of ambassadors had met with no success, although in the meantime the status of the Greek community in Egypt had declined due to the nationalisation of their property, and it was clear that they had no future in Egypt.

On 29 October 1961 a general election was held in Greece in which the National Radical Union party received a clear majority and a stable government was formed. On 24 October Ethiopia had recognised Israel de jure. These developments, together with the decline in the position of the Greek community in Egypt, caused the Israeli Foreign Ministry to conclude that the time was ripe for "diplomatic activity at a high level to set relations between the two states in order"[No.1]. Shmuel Kapel, Israel's diplomatic representative in Athens, initiated contacts with senior ministers in the new government. In a conversation with the foreign minister, Evangelos Averoff, Averoff told him that he "would do all he could to solve the problem of [diplomatic] relations, although certain obstacles remain"[No. 2], while the deputy prime minister, Panayotis Canelopoulos, told Kapel on 21 November that the Greek government had discussed the question of de jure recognition on its own initiative. Although many members of the government saw the normalisation of relation as a matter of right and justice, the decision was deferred for another opportunity, apparently on the recommendation of the foreign minister, Averoff, since Greece was then negotiating with Egypt for compensation for nationalised Greek property[No. 4].

The Israeli minister of education and culture, Abba Eban, visited Athens in May 1962 to deliver two lectures to students of political science. He took this opportunity to meet a number of ministers. In his report on the visit he wrote:

"The absence of normal diplomatic relations with Israel is beginning to appear to the Greek leaders as a striking paradox, which they make no effort to justify. In principle they attribute this situation to the "blunder" committed many years ago, which created a fact which cannot be easily undone […] The only reason given to explain the situation is the need to conclude negotiations with Egypt on the status of the 40,000 Greeks left in Egypt[…] We therefore have no choice but to wait a few months while actively following the situation and showing readiness to raise the subject for decision at the right moment, according to developments between Athens and Cairo".[No. 8].

Temporary acceptance of the situation is reflected also in the attitude of Foreign Minister Golda Meir. On 26 June 1962 Meir replied in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to a question about Israel-Greek relations and said:

"I am sure that the day will come – and I hope it is not far off – when diplomatic relations between us and Greece will be settled and correct, but I cannot ignore the good relations, the very good relations, which exist between Israel and Greece. The minister for education and culture of Israel has just visited Greece and he was well received. In this respect we have nothing more to ask." [Divrei Haknesset (Knesset Reports), First Session of the Fifth Knesset, Vol. XXIV, p. 2464 (Hebrew).]

In December 1963 another factor was added which worked against Israel – the re-opening of the Cyprus question and the struggle between the Greek majority and Turkish minority on the island. Greece was interested in the support of the Arab countries for its stand.

On 21 April 1967 there was a coup d'état in Greece and a military junta seized power. The platform of the new government stated that "the government has set itself the aim of maintaining and encouraging friendship with all foreign states without exception" [ No.31]. Thus the Israeli representative in Athens, Joshua N. Shai, believed that this was a suitable time to raise the question of relations with Israel again. The victory of the IDF in the Six Day War in June 1967 was greeted with enthusiasm by the new rulers of Greece [No.32], and it seemed that this factor also might hasten the establishment of full relations with Greece. In talks held by Israeli representatives with senior figures in the Greek government on Greece's attitude in the debates held at the U.N. General Assembly in the wake of the war, Greek-Israel relations were also discussed. On 29 July Shai spoke with Colonel Nicolaos Makarezos, the minister for economic co-ordination and one of the leaders of the junta. Shai reported that "Makarezos said that he would strive to arrange relations between the two countries, although there are 'delicate issues' involved, the Greek minority in Egypt etc. […] He added that the question was naturally under the jurisdiction of the foreign minister, Pavlos Economou-Gouras, but he would do all that he could to help" [No.33]. On 29 September Shai met the foreign minister who said that "the regulation of relations with Israel had never been closer to the heart of Greece than under this government, and everything possible would be done to this end"[No.35]. However in the period covered here (up to the end of 1967) there was no improvement in the situation.

Despite the lack of formal relations, Israel tried to give tangible practical expression to its ties with Greece. Commercial relations were formed: Israel bought goods from Greece, mainly raw cotton, untreated hides and tobacco, and exported tyres, fertiliser and pesticides, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Ties in the field of aviation were formed by El Al and Olympic Airlines and in that of shipping by the Israeli Zim company and Greek shipping companies. Israel participated annually in the trade fair at Salonica. The division for international co-operation of the foreign ministry sent Greece experts in various fields, such as an Israeli team which was sent in 1964 to help in planning regional development for the island of Crete [ Nos 10–13]. The division also brought Greeks for study in Israel. As stated above, the minister of education, Abba Eban, visited Greece in 1962 – the first visit by an Israeli government minister. In 1963 the noted archaeologist Prof. Yigael Yadin also lectured in Greece. In 1964 the annual meeting of the Israel Exploration Society was held in Greece and in 1965 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra took part in the annual festival in Athens. These ties were reciprocated and there were visits by Greek cultural bodies and dignitaries such as the mayor of Athens, Angelos Tsoukalas, to Israel (see Photograph Gallery).

Because of Greece's geographical position as a country of transit to Israel, Israel needed Greek assistance in various fields. The Greeks usually agreed, if things were done quietly. For example, the Greek authorities gave Israel Air Force planes landing permits for purposes of refueling [No.19] and allowed training voyages by Israel Navy ships to Greek ports, particularly those remote from Athens, far away from the prying eyes of the Arab ambassadors. In 1965 a special permit was given for a visit to Piraeus by Israel Navy ships (destroyers) [Nos. 20 and 25]. It should be mentioned that in August 1953 Israel Navy sailors on a training mission in Greek waters gave extensive help to the victims of a serious earthquake which took place on three islands in the Ionian Sea. King Paul of Greece gave a decoration to the commander of the ships, Captain Shlomo Arel. The Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency received permission to set up an office in Athens, and its staff dealt with immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe, mainly from Romania, on their way to Israel. After the Sinai Campaign in 1956, when the Jews of Egypt were expelled, some 8,000 of them passed through Greece on their way to Israel [No.21].

Israel's success in encouraging practical ties was overshadowed by a number of affronts in the field of diplomatic protocol, as a result of pressure from the ambassadors of the Arab states. Thus, when the marriage ceremony of King Constantine was held in September 1964, all the states which had diplomatic relations with Greece were invited to send a high-ranking representative. It was decided to send the minister of posts, Eliahu Sasson, who was also a veteran diplomat. However, a few days before the wedding, the Israeli representative in Athens was told that the ambassadors of the Arab states were threatening to boycott the ceremony if Israeli representatives were present, and it was suggested that Israel should announce that Sasson would not attend the ceremony as he had fallen ill at the last moment [No.15]. The reaction of Foreign Minister Meir, in a talk with the Greek representative, was that Sasson would not attend, but Israel would not make the announcement, and if there was any publicity, it would not deny the facts and would state that the Greek government had cancelled the invitation under pressure from the Arab states [No.16].

Greece only recognized Israel de jure and exchanged ambassadors in 1990 [ see Gilboa above, pp. 396–397.]

A Special Joint Publication by the Israel State Archives and the Center for Educational Technology (CET)