Sabby Mionis at Jerusalem Post: Israel-Greece relations reach new heights

Less than a year has gone by and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has already visited Israel a second time. Last time he was here was in June with a number of key ministers, a visit with major symbolism since Israel was the first country the Greek PM visited after the first pandemic wave and lockdown. Since then there has been a staggering amount of activity between the two states both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, and it seems that we are only just beginning.
COVID crisis, vaccinations and the Israeli drug.

Less than a year since the beginning of worldwide national lockdowns due to COVID-19, Israel is finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. The country was swift in procuring great numbers of vaccines – albeit at an increased price and with the exchange of valuable medical data. In conjunction with an aggressive vaccination policy by local health services, by the middle of February almost 50% of its population was vaccinated, thus becoming a world leader in the fight against the pandemic. At that rate, the country could return to a relatively “normal state” soon and Israelis could start traveling without the fuss of repeated COVID tests and quarantines. Quite a few people consider Greece to be the first destination before all others.

On a similar scale, Greece, despite the difficulties and the fact that the pandemic was detrimental to the resurrection of its economy after a decade of economic crisis, managed to handle the spread of COVID-19 in an admirable way, especially during the first wave. Despite vaccine distribution issues in the European Union, the country became one of the four countries that vaccinated faster than the COVID could spread.

During the PM’s visit, Greece also expressed interest in participating in the clinical trials of the new Israeli drug developed at Ichilov Hospital by Dr. Nadir Arber. So far the medicine has proved to be effective against the virus in the majority of patients to whom it was administered. Talks were already held between Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras and Dr. Arber regarding the initiation of trials at a Greek hospital.
The ‘Green Passport’ agreement

Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked about a “Green Vaccination Passport” that would enable mutual travel between both countries without COVID tests and lengthy quarantine times. This could give a much needed boost to tourism – vital to Greece’s ailing economy – and it would also be a great convenience for Israeli businessmen to resume business. This is one of the first binational agreements of its kind on a worldwide scale, and it shows the level of trust between the two countries.

Investments from the defense sector to hospitality

The pandemic has certainly slowed things down a bit, but it certainly was no hurdle for major Israeli groups to go forward with strategic investments in Greece.

Some of the most prevalent ones are:

• A $1.68-billion deal between Elbit Systems and the Hellenic Air Force for the establishing and support of a cutting-edge fighter aircraft simulation training center in Kalamata.
• The purchase of ELVO, a company specializing in the manufacture of coaches and military vehicles
• A number of deals concerning drones
• The interest of major investment groups such as AMPA headed by Shlomi Fogel in purchasing industrial assets
• The entrance of major players in the Israeli hospitality sector, such as Brown and Fattal, among others.
Innovation Center

The Greek PM has recently announced plans for the establishment of a major innovation center in Piraeus. This is a PPP project valued at around $100 million, and the first part of the tender has already been released. Naturally, there is enormous interest from the Israeli side, which has great experience in building innovation centers domestically and worldwide, and it is a great opportunity for a more hands-on involvement of the Greek tech sector with the Start-Up Nation.
Horizon Europe

Israel participates in EU innovation programs such as Horizon 2020, which ended last December. In the Horizon 2020 framework, a great percentage of the projects funded were between teams working jointly from Greece and Israel. The EU agenda for the new round of Horizon Europe is prioritizing several fields in which Israel is a world leader such as agritech, clean-tech, digital transformation, smart cities and so on. In conjunction with the massive EU recovery funds that are earmarked for Greece in the form of grants, this provides ample opportunity for cooperation between the tech Argonauts of both countries.

Soft power

The ground was already fertile in Israel for booming relations with Greece. The average Israeli is in love with Greece, its people, its food and its music. This was so even during times when there was no reciprocity, but rather negativity. A change of attitude of the Greek governments during the last 10 years, starting off with PM Giorgos Papandreou from the PASOK Party which traditionally held pro-Palestinian views. It continues until today with PM Mitsotakis, whose father was the first Greek pm to recognize Israel both de jure and de facto, playing a monumental role in the transformation of the climate. One can go as far as to say that perhaps the only thing that all the successive Greek governments of the last decade agreed upon was the importance of being allies with Israel.

The impact was profound: For Israelis, Greece has become a second home of sorts (some 700.000 visited Greece in 2019, in the era before COVID), and for others literally, since there has been a boom in their purchasing of real estate, even during the tough coronavirus times. In the case of the Israel-Greece Chamber of Commerce, a real estate-focused forum was created in order to deal with the massive amount of requests received.

At the same time, Israel is constantly mentioned in the Greek media in a positive way, either by mentioning a new form of cooperation with Greece or by showcasing its achievements in a particular sector.

Conclusion

In a recent webinar by the Israel-Greece Chamber of Commerce I mentioned that I am currently living a dream. Growing up as a Greek Jew in Athens during the ‘80s, I was less than optimistic about any potential changes regarding the views of my compatriots toward Israel. The years went by, and long after I made aliyah and became an Israeli citizen, I always felt that my reservations were not unfounded, especially when I kept getting disappointed during the way, with the greatest being the entrance of the Nazi antisemitic Golden Dawn Party into politics as a third power in the 2011 elections. But things are changing fast.

The year is 2021 and relations could not be better. His Excellency Ambassador of Israel to Greece Yossi Amrani mentioned on yet another webinar by the Israel-Greece Chamber of Commerce, “One could really not imagine the level of current relations between Israel and Greece 30 years ago, and the same could be said for the relations two years ago.” One pattern is clear: The relations are here to stay, and the only way from here is up

The writer is the chairman of Israel-Greece Chamber of Commerce.