Crisis Reporting Resource

From Rimland to Rimland – The main text

How an Ottoman Jew’s move from imperial Salonica to nation-state Haifa mirrored the shifting of a world. The full text of the second part of iMEdD analysis.

Abraham Recanati emigrated from Thessaloniki to Palestine in 1934, the year the British completed work on the Haifa oil refinery. Ottoman Thessaloniki was the only Jewish-majority city in Europe and Recanati hailed from an influential family. Thessaloniki’s Jews were mostly Ladino-speakers taken in by the Ottomans following their expulsion from Spain. This facilitation earned their enduring loyalty, which made for an awkward relationship with the Greeks after 1912, when Thessaloniki was integrated into the Greek nation-state.

Recanati was a journalist, youth organizer and close associate of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the pioneer of a territorially-maximalist version of Labour Zionism known as Revisionism. He corresponded for Germany’s Die Welt during the Balkan Wars, and later founded a Zionist newspaper called Pro Israel. Circumstances were tightening for the Jews of Thessaloniki: their districts were among those burned by the 1917 Great Fire, and the arrival of 1,2m Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor to Greece in 1922-23 turned the city from a 40% Jewish into an 80% Greek Orthodox-majority city. Recanati, who was both a Jewish community head and deputy mayor of Thessaloniki, became involved in a controversy with a nationalist, group of Asia Minor refugees called the Union of Greek Nationalists, who instigated the 1931 Campbell pogrom. Recanati would join the 10,000 Jews who departed Thessaloniki as a result, in tacit recognition that being Jewish in the post-Ottoman empire, and against a backdrop of swelling fascism throughout Europe, was inadvisable. Arriving in Palestine at 43, he threw himself into the struggle to form Israel. He still had half his life before him.

By boarding the ship from Thessaloniki to Haifa in 1934, Recanati spared himself almost certain extermination from the impending Nazi Holocaust, which claimed 50,000 Salonican Jews. But in geopolitical terms, he was simply relocating from one fragile Rimland territory – a strip of volatile coastal land encircling Eurasia – to another. The turbulent 20th century would prove, in both of Recanati’s homelands, that his move was the equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Meanwhile, the West’s qualified support for his birthplace and unconditional assistance to his adopted homeland would maintain bridgeheads that would contribute to the perpetuation of another century of dominance in the East Mediterranean.

The West heads East

In the interwar period, accelerating Jewish emigration to Palestine and the discovery of oil across the Middle East transformed the area’s importance from merely a bridge between Africa and Asia into a linchpin of the global industrial system. World War One had largely been fought over access routes and new sources of energy, rather than territory. Until the 19th century, the Mediterranean was contested for its strategic access to eastern trade routes, and the discovery of petroleum augmented this importance: as Morris Jastrow, an American Orientalist and author of The War and the Baghdad Railroad had said, the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway project constituted ‘a 42-centimetre gun pointed at India’.
This series’ first instalment argued that Greece was created in the 19th century out of the great power rivalry between Russia and a West whose chief representative at the time was Britain. The 20th century would see the US assuming the role of chief western power against a backdrop of decolonization. Having already earned its independence in the 19th century, Greece would assume the contours of a modern state and become integrated into an anti-Russian security architecture, while Israel would be created as a homeland for the Jewish people, and an additional western outpost in a geopolitically crucial region. This process would conclude in the early 21st century with the two countries finding themselves engaged in an energy alliance, and an economically-ravaged Greece purchasing and leasing Israeli armaments while offering investing opportunities to Israeli business and unique training opportunities to its military.

Oil business: Mosul, Bab el-Mandeb and the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company

In 1912, Britain switched its navy from coal to oil and went on to vanquish Germany in World War One through the steady oil-supply guaranteed by its US ally, which by 1917 supplied two-thirds of global needs. 1912 also marked the formation of the Turkish Petroleum Company, a coalition of major oil companies intending to drill in the Ottoman Empire.

Anxious to source an independent oil supply from the Middle East, the British raced to grab Mosul before a ceasefire with the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France had been secretly negotiating since 1916 on how to split the former Ottoman provinces of Syria and Iraq. Their agreement became known as Sykes-Picot after the two officials who negotiated it, and controlling oil was at its heart. France sought two protectorates: one over what it called “natural Syria”, a territory extending from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai Peninsula and from Mosul to the Mediterranean, and a second one over Palestine.

Even though the British already occupied Egypt and Cyprus, they were unlikely to share with the French what they viewed as an essential territory from which to both export Middle Eastern oil and control the east Bank of Suez. In tussling for influence over Palestine, the British sought to enlarge it at French expense, by including southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights, something which suited their Zionist interlocutors. These Jewish leaders had already pledged to safeguard British concerns in Suez, with future Israeli President Chaim Weizmann informing British statesmen that “we could have in 25-30 years about a million Jews out there, perhaps more; they would develop the country, bring back civilisation to it, and form a very effective guard of the Suez canal and – perhaps be a valuable protection against an aggression from Constantinople … Palestine can easily become an Asiatic Belgium in the hands of the Jews”.

Jewish ambitions were also boosted by good timing: Britain was anxious to encourage the US to enter the First World War on its side, and believed that a Jewish Palestine could motivate the American Jewish community towards this. In unsuccessfully trying to get them to break ranks, François Georges-Picot offered a French statement of support for a Jewish Palestine.

By the time it was completed in 1934, the Kirkuk-Haifa oil pipeline traced the separating line between British and French zones of influence, as expressed in the Sykes-Picot agreement, with oil gushing into British and French refineries in Haifa and Tripoli respectively. In 1918, France ceded Mosul in return for participation in the Iraq Petroleum Company, the post-Ottoman replacement of the TPC, dominated by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Britain had initially given away Mosul to the French because of its longterm policy of establishing buffers between its colonies and the Russian Empire. But the Communist Revolution crippled Russia as a geopolitical power, opening the energy-rich Caucasus and western Asia to exploitation. Germany also sought to capitalize on the vacuum, with Berlin’s two-front, World War Two strategy against the allies and the USSR aiming at dominating the region’s oilfields to launch it as a world power.

Britain’s discovery of oil, first in Persia and Iraq, and then across the Persian Gulf, upgraded Palestine in London’s calculations from a mere geography protecting its trade route through Suez to a strategic concern. As up to a fifth of world oil production began streaming out of the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, and then westwards up the Red Sea and through Suez into the Mediterranean, the region’s importance as an export hub skyrocketed, and it became a global crossroads. This became apparent in the Second World War, as Germany targeted the Suez Canal through the North Africa campaign, while Italy and the British tussled from their respective colonies in Abyssinia and Aden across the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. By the early 21st century, the straits were the world’s most geopolitically crucial location, a reality reflected in diminutive Djibouti hosting the largest number of foreign military bases in the world.

The Great Eurasian Buffer

Demonstrating how lethal imperial adjacencies in sensitive contact zones can be, the two world wars accelerated the trend towards establishing land buffers between major powers. During the 19th century, the British had already established Afghanistan as a no-man’s-land against the Russians. This was the lesson that the leaders of the USA, USSR and Britain took into their 1945 meeting in Yalta, a small beach-town on the Black Sea where the post-World War Two world took shape. The Cold War was already a reality and one of the ways by which its players managed to keep it cool was through agreeing to bundle several young nation-states into a contiguous Eurasian buffer stretching from Europe into Asia: Iran, Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia became a swath of separation between the USSR and US allies, within which the rivals sought to position deterrents such as spies, military assets and nuclear weapons.

The Allied rejection of Russian bases in Turkey prompted Soviet attempts to annul the Montreux Convention and intimidate Turkey into ceding joint control of the straits, something which pushed Ankara closer to Washington. In 1944, a diplomat representing the British-backed Greek government in exile in Cairo, celebrated the Turkish severing of relations with Nazi Germany by pointing out that, for the first time since the Greek uprising against the Ottomans in 1821, the two peninsulas of Greece and Anatolia were reunified in a cohesive entity, and noted that only when this land passage was intact did local political units such as the Alexandrian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, thrive.

With the atomic age making Great Power conflict prohibitively dangerous, the confrontation shifted to being conducted through multiple proxy conflicts, with Greece’s 1944-49 civil war marking the first. In October 1944, a few days before British troops landed in an Athens just vacated by the Nazis, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and USSR chief Josef Stalin agreed in a Moscow meeting that the British would swap 90% control of Greece in exchange for 90% USSR predominance in Romania. When hostilities broke out in the Greek capital in December 1944, British troops were rushed in to attack the same people they had recently been on the same side of against the common Nazi enemy, and pushed the Communist guerrillas into the mountains. The Greek civil war rumbled on for years and, in 1947, a few months after the Turkish Straits crisis, an exhausted Britain handed its conduct over to a fresh USA, whose military resupply of the Greek Army with a new weapon – napalm – settled the conflict for the pro-US side. The 1947 Truman Doctrine provided a framework for a Soviet containment policy, and Greece was soon reprising the anti-Russian role it had played in 1919 Ukraine by sending troops to Korea in support of another US-USSR proxy conflict. In 1953, it joined NATO, a US-created military alliance aimed at Moscow.

From Zionist militias to nuclear power

In Palestine, meanwhile, tensions between Jewish settlers, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine and the British Mandate authority came to a head in the 1940s. Jewish militan’ts assassinated British Minister of State for the Middle East Lord Moyne in 1944, and blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem housing the British military command, two years later. Britain withdrew from the mandate in 1948, creating a vacuum which the USSR sought to fill in order to promote its Mediterranean ambitions.

Although the Zionist movement had largely depended on the British to realize its dream of a Jewish state, British restrictions on mounting immigration that were imposed just as Nazi persecution mounted, resulted in Jewish clashes with the British Army and diplomatic openings to the Soviets, who sought to leverage the Jews against the British presence. The head of the Jewish Agency pre-empted the UN partition plan for Palestine by announcing the state of Israel on the last day of the British mandate, prompting Arab neighbours to commence hostilities. Despite having serious misgivings about the new state and how it might jeopardise its oil-based alliance with Saudi Arabia, the USA extended diplomatic recognition to Israel eleven minutes after its declaration, with the Soviets following two days later. But neither provided the weapons Israel required to survive the Arab assault; these were procured from cash-strapped Czechoslovakia (following a Soviet nod), allowing Israel to confront the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies, push through to the Red Sea, and implement a policy of ethnic cleansing that displaced 700,000 Palestinians from some 400 towns and villages. Greece kept its distance from Israel at first, voting in line with its Arab allies, oil supliers and trade partners against the UN Partition Plan, and became one of the last western countries to commence formal relations with Tel Aviv in 1990.

The special relationship and first US weapons shipments would not come for another decade, during which Washington ignored Israeli pleas for a security guarantee so as not to jeopardise its fledgling relationship and oil supply from Saudi Arabia. What tipped the balance was the risk to the regional balance of power posited by a 1955 Egyptian-Soviet arms deal. The Truman administration executed its first weapons transfer in 1958, followed by sales of Hawk missiles in 1963, tanks in 1965 and F-4 Phantom fighter-jets in 1968 (partially as a reward for Israel’s Mossad intelligence service capturing the most sophisticated Russian fighter-jet at the time). Israel then became the largest cumulative recipient of US military assistance ($3bn annually), amassing more than $124 billion over the past seven decades (inflation non-adjusted), becoming a Major Non-NATO ally, benefiting from the Qualitive Military Edge doctrine and being exempted from standard US sanctions on arms shipments to militaries documented as abusing human rights. By the early 1960s, Israel benefited from French support to become a nuclear power .

US-USSR sparring in the Mediterranean

As decolonization rippled through the Mediterranean in the 1950s, and the US established its Sixth Fleet in the Italian port of Naples, the Soviets set up opposite, in Egypt. Moscow facilitated the 1955 arms deal with cash-strapped pan-Arabist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, just in time for the 1956 Suez War. This British-French-Israeli intervention fittingly marked the end of the age of European colonialism in the same country from which Napoleon’s 1798 expedition began it.

Being the largest and best-armed Arab country, Egypt was crucial for controlling the region. When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, the British and French secretly agreed with Israel that it should invade, triggering them to intervene, supposedly in favour of restoring regional stability but in reality to seize Suez. The war suited Israel, whose planners had already produced a 1954 study arguing for the economic, social, and demographic necessity of expanding their borders to the Suez shoreline. Seeing the invasion unfold, Moscow warned it would respond and hinted at the use of nuclear weapons. Washington resolved the crisis in a manner that finalized Britain’s departure from the region.

Israel would fight two more wars with its neighbours. In 1967, the Israeli army thrashed three militaries to gain the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria and Gaza from the Egyptians. In 1973, Syria and Egypt attacked simultaneously on Judaism’s holiest day, but massive US arms resupplies, much of it through Souda, soon turned the tide, and the USSR had to step in to protect its allies. The resolution also deescalated the dangerous standoff that developed south of Crete between 100 US and Soviet nuclear warships.

Throughout this period the US-Israeli relationship grew tighter. Washington benefited through intelligence-sharing, joint training and covert operations, pre-positioned weapons dumps, and ensuring it had a dependable partner in the world’s most sensitive geopolitical zone. In 1981, Israel identified the USSR as its enemy for the first time through the US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation. Greece’s junta period also marked the improvement of relations with Athens, and featured unpublicized Israeli arms and oil sales to the military regime alongside intelligence cooperation.

What also flourished in the Sixties and Seventies, during the Arab-Israeli conflict’s harshest years, was the Soviet-Egyptian alliance. A naval air unit and deep-water port at Marsa Matruh gave the USSR its first land-based air capability in the Mediterranean, allowing it to confront the Sixth Fleet. But by 1972, the relationship soured and some 14,000 Soviet personnel had to depart Egypt. The USSR restricted itself to its Tartous base in Syria and scaled back operations in the central and western Mediterranean. As part of the Gorshkov naval doctrine, it redirected resources to the crucial Red Sea theatre of the Cold War, where Moscow maintained a military presence in the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen, the only Arab Marxist state, and was involvement in the Ethiopian civil war.

Oil, Zionism and a World War

The 1973 Yom Kippur War marked such a crushing defeat for Egypt as to convince Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, to pursue peace with Israel. The US-facilitated agreement marked Israel’s normalization with the Arab World’s most heavyweight actor, and ended the threat of a multi-front attack. Washington sweetened the breaking of ranks with Arab countries by paying Egypt an annual $1,3bn in military aid, which had the additional purpose of obliging Cairo to replace its Soviet weapons with American-made ones.

In 1974, the American-backed military dictatorship in Greece came to an end with an Athens-backed failed coup in Cyprus, followed by a Turkish invasion. Athens withdrew from NATO in protest at American and British inaction during and following the invasion, but returned by 1980, and accepted new US bases on its soil in 1983. A further agreement in 1990 gave Washington continued access to its most important base in the Mediterranean, Souda Bay, on which it depended heavily for its 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq, and the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya. With the end of the Cold War, Greece remained a Rimland state (and retained relevancy) by flipping its orientation from the Balkans to the Mediterranean.

Israel’s more independent progression resulted in its taking initiatives that appeared to upset its US patron, such as destroying Iraq’s nuclear reactor at a time when Baghdad and Washington were allies, annexing the Syrian Golan Heights or, most notoriously, mounting a lethal attack on a US spy ship during the 1967 war. Washington not only did not punish Israel for the killing of 34 sailors, but declared a news ban and threatened survivors with court-martials. It appears that such incidents faded against the utility of a state whose very existence generated the kind of regional discord that could be leveraged to incentivize all players – Israel included – to compete for Washington’s graces. The same dynamic, applied to the Turkey-Greece enmity, has resulted in the two countries being among the highest spenders globally in military hardware, the majority US-produced.

Washington also leveraged its oversight of the Arab-Israeli peace process to maintain and bolster its regional position: from bringing and keeping Egypt and Jordan into the western camp following Camp David, to offering carrots and sticks to regional rivals such as Syria and Iran. The 2019 Abraham Accords marked an escalation in this policy, as the US yielded the initiative to not only reinforce its security architecture and create an alternative trade route to the developing Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, but also legitimize Israel’s decades-long land-grab by incentivizing regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia to retire its longterm diplomatic stance in support of Palestinian rights.

The end of the Cold War and dawning of America’s unilateral moment found Greece and Israel aligned behind Washington in the 1991 US war to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait. The US military leaned on Souda as it assembled an Arab coalition constructed around Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria to add a sheen of Arab legitimacy to its intervention. Iraq sought to disrupt this alliance and elicit a divisive Israeli reaction through raining Scud missiles on Israeli cities, but the US transferred Patiot missiles and Tel Aviv remained aloof. Saddam’s army was crushed but he was retained in place to avoid offering Iran the kind of vacuum into which it could expand.

The US commenced an Arab-Israeli peace process whose only success was formalizing Jordan’s already-benign relationship with Israel through a 1994 peace agreement. Attempts to negotiate with the Palestinians resulted in weak and unimplemented agreements at Camp David and Oslo, while the Shepherdstown peace-talks with Syria stumbled over water rights. Russia moved to write off most of Syria’s $13.4bn Soviet-era debt, become Syria’s main arms supplier, and enlarge its naval facility in Tartus into a permanent Middle East base for its nuclear-armed warships.

That was the state of play when the new millennium commenced with the 9.11 bang ushering in the so-called war against terrorism, followed by the Arab Spring in 2011. The first resulted in Iraq’s occupation, while the second removed Libya and Syria from the regional deck, eliminating three of Israel’s traditional rivals. Natural gas and oil were discovered in large quantities in the sea between Cyprus and Israel, creating additional tension and strategic alignments in the East Mediterranean. China inched into the region by purchasing a majority stake in Greece’s main Piraeus port that would become the main Mediterranean port of arrival for ships participating in its Belt Road Initiative as they emerged from the Suez Canal, and locked down the Red Sea approach by opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017.

The EU sought to cut Greece away, following the eruption of its economic crisis, which required the largest bailout offered in history. But the country’s positioning at the center of a triangle of instability stretching from Ukraine to Libya and Syria, which the US sought to control, maintained Washington’s support during negotiations with the Europeans. With President Teyyip Erdogan’s Turkey becoming increasingly autonomous, Greece granted the US the use of an additional four bases, in exchange for Washington reversing the European commitment to ejecting Greece from the EU. The port of Alexandroupoli was also included in this deal, which allowed the US to bypass the Montreux Convention’s ban on arms-shipments through the Bosporus in times of war, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and proceed with the rearmament of Kiev. Athens’ eagerness to submit to US foreign policy on Ukraine marked a waystation in its capitulation back to being a US client state, in marked contrast to Turkey’s more equivocal stance.

Recanati Street

By the time he died in Tel Aviv in 1980, Abraham Recanati had lived to witness Israel becoming a nation-state and three decades of its growing pains. He remained engaged in public affairs, serving as an elected representative to the first Knesset, and assisting in the transfer to Israel of hundreds of Thessaloniki’s famous port workers to Judaize the strategically sensitive port of Haifa.

The Recanati family businesses thrived alongside the development of the Israeli state, both domestically and abroad. The Recanatis followed a well-trodden nation-state trajectory perhaps familiar to many of the Greek state’s 19th and 20th century national benefactors, as they transitioned from transnational bankers and ship-owners into philanthropy through endowing hospitals, educational initiatives, and museums. Abraham Recanati’s life had spanned the transition from empire to nation-state and witnessed eight wars: the Balkan Wars, two global conflicts, a Cold War, and four Arab-Israeli conflicts.

As this fervent Zionist departed Thessaloniki, a victim of the ethnically-exclusive ideology of Hellenism on his way to realize the Zionist dream, it is unknown whether he connected his displacement to the depredations of nationalism. Perhaps the inability to draw connections with parallel conditions is a feature of believing in an ideology that favours some over others. Israel reserved a very nation-state posthumous honour for Recanati: it named a two-block stretch of street in Tel Aviv after him.

Recanati was a journalist, youth organizer and close associate of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the pioneer of a territorially-maximalist version of Labour Zionism known as Revisionism. He corresponded for Germany’s Die Welt during the Balkan Wars, and later founded a Zionist newspaper called Pro Israel. Circumstances were tightening for the Jews of Thessaloniki: their districts were among those burned by the 1917 Great Fire, and the arrival of 1,2m Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor to Greece in 1922-23 turned the city from a 40% Jewish into an 80% Greek Orthodox-majority city. Recanati, who was both a Jewish community head and deputy mayor of Thessaloniki, became involved in a controversy with a nationalist, group of Asia Minor refugees called the Union of Greek Nationalists, who instigated the 1931 Campbell pogrom. Recanati would join the 10,000 Jews who departed Thessaloniki as a result, in tacit recognition that being Jewish in the post-Ottoman empire, and against a backdrop of swelling fascism throughout Europe, was inadvisable. Arriving in Palestine at 43, he threw himself into the struggle to form Israel. He still had half his life before him.

By boarding the ship from Thessaloniki to Haifa in 1934, Recanati spared himself almost certain extermination from the impending Nazi Holocaust, which claimed 50,000 Salonican Jews. But in geopolitical terms, he was simply relocating from one fragile Rimland territory – a strip of volatile coastal land encircling Eurasia – to another. The turbulent 20th century would prove, in both of Recanati’s homelands, that his move was the equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Meanwhile, the West’s qualified support for his birthplace and unconditional assistance to his adopted homeland would maintain bridgeheads that would contribute to the perpetuation of another century of dominance in the East Mediterranean.