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Israel's Balkan Strategy

Amid the ocean of reports full of both misinformation and disinformation regarding Israel's likely plans concerning Iran's nuclear project, not enough attention is being paid to what is already happening, as opposed to what may or may not happen.

I'm referring to the interesting and seemingly successful Israeli strategy of getting close to countries surrounding Turkey. The latest was the visit of PM Netanyahu in Cyprus and the unprecedented agreement signed between the two countries which would allow Israeli troops, both naval and aerial, to be stationed in the small island nation in times of emergency.

PM Netanyahu is a right-wing Israeli leader, the lightening rod of many left-wingers all over the world. His host was President Demetris Christofias, a member of the AKEL party, the communist party of Cyprus, the only communist leader of any member nation of the EU. What seemed to be political science fiction just some time ago became a reality, and this is just one example of the shifting sands of Mediterranean and South European politics.

Some weeks ago, the leader of Muslim Albania visited in the Knesset and gave a rousing pro-Israel speech. Netanyahu also cemented close, personal relationships with former left-wing Greek PM George Papandreo, the son of Andreas Papandreo, whose term as Greece's PM was characterized by well-displayed public enmity towards Israel. Simultaneously, Israel has solidified its friendly relations with Bulgaria and Romania.

So, what is happening? Clearly, a lot of it has to do with Turkey, the nemesis, under the Ottoman Empire of the Slavic and Christian Orthodox Balkans. In the case of Cyprus there is also the joint interest to defend the newly-discovered huge reservoirs of natural gas which the two countries intend to develop in close cooperation, much to the chagrin of Lebanon and Turkey under PM Erdogan, who goes out of his way to threaten both Israel and Cyprus in order to deter them from going ahead with their joint projects.

The old rule that the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" is surely at play here. Ironically, Erdogan's AKP Islamic-oriented government prided itself for a foreign policy of "zero" hostile neighbors. Ambitions notwithstanding, Erdogan's aggressive posture, coupled with the legacy of the traumatic past relations between Turkey and its Balkan neighbors, has led to a situation of maybe "zero" friends to Turkey, rather than the other way around...

PM Netanyahu and Israel adroitly sensed the opportunity opened by this state of affairs, and in a very skilful way are opening new options and opportunities for Israel's foreign policy. There is however a bigger context and background against which we should examine this recent development. Israel, already in the pre-state days, always was eager to break the siege of hatred and boycott imposed by the neighboring Arab and Muslim states. In the old days, there was a sense that non-Muslim minorities, particularly in Lebanon and Syria could become allies of the Zionist movement and the newly-established state, but this proved futile. Such hopes were revived after the June 1967 war, and the takeover of the Golan Heights, close to the Druze Mountain of South -West Syria.

Even more so, after the Lebanon war of 1982, when the Maronite war lords seemed to be ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel. All this went in flames, and nothing materialized. In between, in the 1950's, PM Ben-Gurion tried to create the "Periphery Alliance," with Ethiopia, Iran and Turkey. Ethiopia was the first chip to fall, with the Marxist revolution of 1974; then went the Shah of Iran in 1979; and in recent years the strategic alliance with Turkey has been challenged -- in fact shattered -- by the policies of Erdogan, coupled by Israeli mishaps, such as the handling of the Marmara fiasco. While the relationships with Ethiopia were greatly restored, the relations with Turkey seem to be in a free, unstoppable fall.

Needless to mention Iran... It is also relevant to mention that the still existing peace relations with Egypt and Jordan, as fragile as they are, helped Israel, at least partly, to lift the wall of isolation forced upon her. So, the question is can the newly-forged friendly relations with Cyprus and the Balkan states be a replacement to the alliance of the past with Turkey?

It is premature to pass a definitive judgment, but the odds are that the answer is negative. Turkey is by far the strongest country in this neighborhood, economically, militarily and politically. The closure of the Turkish market for the Israeli military industries is significant, and it is inconceivable, that a bankrupt nation like Greece, impoverished states like Albania or small nations like Cyprus can make up the difference. It is highly doubtful whether PM Erdogan will change course and restore the relations of the past with Israel as a reaction to the Israeli initiatives.

It is more likely, that he views these initiatives as a challenge to Turkey's vital national interests and his enmity to Israel will grow, rather than diminish. It is also highly doubtful how the new Israeli alliances can and will help Israel in dealing with its immediate, greatest national security threat, i.e. the Iranian nuclear project. Yet, PM Netanyahu's frantic Balkan efforts are not entirely without merit. A country like Israel with all its problems and enemies should always extend, diversify and solidify its foreign relations.

An historic reminder though, may help Netanyahu to put it all in perspective. It was the "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck who famously commented that the "Balkans did not worth the bones of one Pomeranian Grenadier"...

Hopefully Netanyahu and his government are fully aware of what a hornet's nest the Balkans can be and will follow their initial successes in that part of the world with the required prudence and sense of realism.

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