Greece and Israel within a triple global crisis – The main text

What roles for Israel and Greece as new conflicts spread along liquid silk roads? The last part of the iMEdD analysis.

2024 ushered in a strange new militarism. Total global military expenditure soared 7% up from 2022 to $2.4 trillion, the largest year-on-year increase in 15 years. 35,000 Palestinians were dead in Gaza, 11,000 in Ukraine, and global trade had got locked out of the Red Sea, one of its most important routes. The situation escalated as US soldiers began losing their lives, first during an interdiction in the Red Sea, and then after an Iran-aligned group launched a drone attack on their base on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

These new peaks in military activity across several theaters happened even as global officials warned their publics that war is imminent. “We are preparing for war with Russia”, a top NATO official said, while the British Defence Secretary warned that we are in “a pre-war world” and the Israeli Foreign Minister described his country as being “at the height of World War 3 against Iran and radical Islam”. French President Emmanuel Macron prepared to send French soldiers to fight Russia in Ukraine and warned that Europeans are “approaching a moment when it will be necessary not to be cowards”.

Though most wars renegotiate a failing economic status quo, they are usually sparked by crises arising from emotive and popularly-divisive narratives. So, it was unsurprising that the second front to erupt along the North-South Maritime Axis (stretching from the Sea of Azov through to the Red Sea) was Israel-Palestine. This dominoed onto a third front along the same axis, when the Ansarallah movement in Yemen became the first non-state actor to close the international Red Sea waterway. While these events superficially appeared self-fuelled and separate from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, their timing and the involved parties’ subsequent positioning suggested they had been primed to detonate.

From the first day of the Hamas raid on Israel, marking that state’s single most lethal day, it was clear that this was not just another flare-up in a rumbling conflict, but an entirely new phase in an ongoing global confrontation between the USA and its new challengers. The Hamas fighters acted to sabotage the Abraham Accords (the successful implementation of which would have sidelined the Palestinian issue), demonstrated evolved military techniques and endurance, and inflicted significant losses on the Israeli military over eight months of fighting, while maintaining their losses at 20-30% according to US intelligence estimates. Coordinated regional attacks by Iran-aligned militias on US troops sought to increase the cost of supporting Israel, while the Ansarullah maritime intervention aimed at eliciting pain in the First World consumer. Whoever designed this strategy clearly sought to quantify Palestinian suffering in a way that the average resident of the West might have greater chances of resonating with than the images of death and destruction from Gaza had so far evoked.

What the expansion of the global conflict also demonstrated was the democratization of war, with state-backed non-state actors such as Hamas, Hizbullah, Ansarallah and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq leveraging cheap technology to outsmart weapons systems costing in the multiples. The systematic and multilateral suffocation of the Israeli economy appeared to be unfolding in the months since October 2023, with partial closedowns of sectors as large numbers of the working force were activated into the army reserves, the Red Sea port of Eilat near-shuttered, and Iranian diplomacy pushing regional Israeli partners with a pro-Palestinian narrative such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to reduce production and interrupt Azerbaijani oil transfers to Israel passing through its territory, respectively. Their refusal to do so was what prompted non-state actors to shoulder the weight of anti-Israel action. While Turkey suspended trade relations with Israel, Greece (which has long-since abandoned its pro-Palestinian rhetoric), stood firmly by Israel and facilitated US military aid to Tel Aviv.

Greece and Israel in the global inflection moment

This series’ first two instalments examined how the creation of Greece and Israel were largely assisted by British efforts in the 19th and 20th century to thwart Russia from establishing a commercial and military presence in the Mediterranean. Both Greece and Israel were hobbled from the start by hostile geographies, limited populations, and the presence of eternal enemies (be they neighbours or internal demographics). These obstacles deprived them of economic autonomy and coerced them into serving their patrons’ strategic goals. But while Israel’s economy was a success, and it developed a foreign policy sovereign enough as to be regularly accused of wagging the dog, Greece’s consecutive bankruptcies obstructed it from achieving the same degree of autonomy.

This final piece examines how the current conflict in Gaza folds into the ongoing process of renegotiating the global economic system, at a moment of planetary crisis unseen since the 20th century’s two world wars, and how Greece and Israel fit into this global moment. Where World War One transitioned us from colonialism and empire to a nation-state system; and World War Two marked the demise of Europe and rise of America and the USSR; the wars in Ukraine and Gaza appear to signify the end of Washington’s unipolar moment and a possible transition past the nation-state. Are small countries like Greece and Israel doomed to remain appendages of their patrons or can they achieve a level of independence akin to what Turkey, Iran and the UAE have been demonstrating in recent years? At a time of rapid transitions, are they headed towards merely retaining a nation-state shell concealing that their political leaders’ imposition of austerity and adoption of EU free market dictates has financialized away their nation-state innards?

Since 2022, Athens has witnessed the northern and southern segments of the Black Sea-East Mediterranean-Red Sea axis igniting into a conflict that extends from the Ukrainian ports under Russian bombardment to the Houthis’ perilous tangoes with the US and French navies over the Red Sea. The eastern Mediterranean remains peaceful but tense, with concentrated naval military activity off the coast of Gaza, Israel and Lebanon, alongside the longstanding Greek-Turkish tensions in the Aegean. With America’s all-out support for Israel’s Gaza campaign suggesting that the spreading conflict is a matter of survival or hegemony for its actors, what role might Tel Aviv and Athens play in a transformed region? What choices and realignments are their politicians making?

An eye for an eye

Israel responded to the 7 October events by attempting to ethnically cleanse Gaza. Announcing it would obliterate Hamas after its traumatizing and brutal raid, the Israeli army plunged into the Strip, unleashing an overwhelming demonstration of collective punishment dictated by an Israeli government loaded with revenge-seeking extremists rather than heeding US-counselled restraint. Washington nevertheless massively rearmed its ally , including with bunker-busters, tank rounds and bombs so large that their use in urban settings guaranteed high casualties.

As a result of the relentless bombardments, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed (almost 7 in 10 women and children) and 90% of the population displaced, in what two studies concluded is the highest per capita civilian death-toll of any conflict in the 20th century. Indiscriminate bombing and urban warfare rendered what was once known as the world’s most densely populated open-air prison into a wasteland of rubble, prompting US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to warn Israel it might face a strategic defeat despite winning a tactical victory.

“Israel is the designated proxy, assigned to defend Western interests in the Middle East but instead the US is functioning as Israel’s proxy, now fighting on multiple fronts, its soldiers dying to defend Israel and protect its ability to continue fighting in the Gaza Strip,” said Muin Rabbani, a Dutch-Palestinian former senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, in reference to the deaths of US soldiers in the Red Sea and Jordan during Israel-related interdiction operations. “That’s not how the US-Israeli relationship is supposed to work.”

As with the Ukraine conflict, Greece was unequivocal in choosing sides. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis set the tone with a solidarity visit to Israeli Prime Minister Benyanin Netanyahu, committed frigates for patrols in the East Mediterranean and Operation Prosperity Guardian, and instructed Greek diplomats to abstain from a UN vote calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. Despite the Greek state having historically maintained a pro-Palestinian policy in line with the policies of its mostly Arab and Iranian oil-suppliers, this time it apportioned solidarity and strategic depth to its Israeli ally while tossing the Palestinians a humanitarian gesture.

Washington docked naval assets in support of Israel at Souda Bay, and was granted use of further airbases for its operations, while Athens – in recognition that it has one of the world’s largest commercial fleets – headquartered the EU side of the US-led Prosperity Guardian operation in the Greek city of Larisa. All in all, Greece acted consistently with its historical record of aligning itself with the West, something noted by Moscow.

As it became apparent that the 7 October Hamas raid was part of a vista greater than the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio, the regional repercussions set in train by the militants swam into focus. Locally, the multiple synchronised raids on Israeli military installations and militarized civilian communities struck Israel a traumatic domestic blow, serving as a reminder that backsliding on peace commitments even while building walls and seizing land through illegal settlement expansion cannot guarantee lasting security. Regionally, the operations achieved the opening of a second front after Ukraine, pushing Washington into a two-front proxy war alongside the Black-Med-Red maritime axis. They also halted the sidelining of Israel’s 75-year occupation of five million Palestinians, which the US sought to consolidate through a process of regional economic integration facilitated by the Abraham Accords. Hamas also served Iranian interests by attacking Israel within its borders and opening a southern front to Iranian proxy Lebanese Hizbullah’s northern one, while demonstrating it has achieved operational abilities approaching the Lebanese militia’s. Finally, the shocking images of dead babies, shrapnel-sprayed children and grieving parents generated on cellphones in real time appalled Arab publics, making it impossible for Riyadh to move towards normalizing with Israel, just weeks before the announcement. “They (Hamas) knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” Biden complained.

Evidence also emerged that the attacks did not come out of the blue for Israel. Both its soldiers and foreign intelligence services sent multiple warnings to a high degree of detail that Hamas was training for a strike. Before its invasion of Gaza, the IDF warned the Palestinian population to depart the Strip into Egypt.

But the Egyptians refused to open their border, and Israel similarly did not open any of the Strip’s other four crossings, invalidating claims of concern for the civilian population. A government document proposing a mass expulsion of Gaza’s inhabitants was leaked, alongside proposals incentivizing Egypt to admit the Palestinians. The ensuing Israeli bombardment was so extensive it rendered the Strip uninhabitable. The military targeted hospitals, disconnected the territory from fresh water supplies and pumped seawater into the Hamas tunnel network, one consequence of which was the contamination of the water-table and agricultural land. With Biblical references of destruction being bandied around both by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and pundits, it appeared that Israel was pursuing not just a war against Hamas but a systematic effort to depopulate Gaza.

Several theories have been posited as to Israel’s deeper motivations for seeking to clear the strategic and Mediterranean-facing Gaza Strip, besides the claim that the 7 October events were so traumatic as to prompt a final settling of its Palestinian problem. These include the opportunity of seizing Gaza’s currently meagre offshore natural gas reserves, and the potential of redeveloping the Strip into a facility for a colossal project:

a canal competing with Suez that would connect the Mediterranean and Red Sea via Eilat, something impossible as long as transiting ships are at risk of being struck by Hamas missiles. With the Panama Canal’s increasing dryness driving more container traffic to Suez and Cairo recently increasing transit fees, the US might welcome an initiative that offers a potential alternative to Suez in case of blockage, expands competition and reduces fees. Such a canal could be militarily covered from US bases in Greece and Djibouti, which hosts the only permanent US military perch in Africa, and oversees developments in Red Sea and Horn of Africa states like Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. But with the canal remaining unrealistic, both in engineering terms and as long as Gaza remains a hostile territory, an alternative railway route is also being explored.

War of trade corridors: BRI vs IMEC

If the late 20th century was about American-dominated globalization and US-policed trade routes, the 21st is witnessing a shift towards competing commercial corridors. Greece and Israel are enmeshed in a US-led trade corridor, while the ongoing conflict’s critical geography intersects with the Red Sea, which became the crossroads between East and West in an era of Chinese production and western consumption, These streamlined commercial superhighways integrate vast stretches of sea and land routes, accelerating the movement of goods by linking up railway lines with shipping corridors in upgraded port hubs. The two current superpowers approach these routes in the same way that tech giants shaped the internet’s privatised social platforms into exclusive, sealed ecosystems generating power and profits for whoever controls them. Despite the rhetoric of collaborative openness being bandied around, buy-in also implies political loyalty to the geopolitical lineup deploying them and its strategic objectives. Much like gas-stations flourish or flounder depending on inclusion in a new, tolled highway, so are existing ports and territories faced with the dilemma of either guaranteeing their future prosperity by seeking participation in one of the rival routes, or being cast into the wilderness of shrivelling local or regional trade.

Of the several commercial corridors being considered, the only functioning route at the moment is China’s BRI, which celebrated its first decade in a 17 October 2023 Beijing ceremony mostly attended by Global South and BRICS leaders. One of its strands follows the maritime Indian Ocean-to-Suez route, which emerges in the Mediterranean. Aside from bringing transportation costs and journey time down, the BRI aims to flesh out the currency aspect of the BRICS alliance by dedollarizing its transactions and establishing a network trading in yuan, rubles or national currencies. Although the yuan tripled its share of global transactions since January 2023, it still only accounts for under 4% of global payments by value, compared to the dollar’s nearly 60% share.

Aside from the BRI, another trade corridor disrupting the geopolitical status quo is the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INTSC). This is a Eurasian sea-and-railway passage connecting India to Russia, northern Europe and Central Asia, and entirely bypassing the US-dominated Red Sea and Suez Canal. It also rehabilitates US-sanctioned Iran by shipping products to its Chabahar port from Mumbai, where they are reloaded onto trains which slice through the Iranian Plateau to the shores of the Caspian Sea, and onwards from there to Turkey, the Balkans or Central Asia. The first cargo to be delivered along this route to Saudi Arabia travelled from Moscow in early September 2023.

September was also the month when Biden rushedly announced his “real big deal” of a western alternative at the September 2023 G20 summit, even though key details remain unavailable. The US plan features Greece as the entrance port into the EU, while an Israel and Saudi Arabia united under the Abraham Accords would carry India-originating goods across the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian-owned port of Haifa. The India-Middle East Corridor (IMEC) is a competing trade route to the BRI aimed at blocking Chinese inroads into western Asia and southeastern Europe. IMEC leverages India’s need to establish stronger links with western markets to compete with China more effectively and dilute its 40% Russian oil dependency on Saudi and Iraqi oil. The project’s centerpiece will be a stretch of railway spanning the Arabian Peninsula from the UAE port of Fujeira across to Haifa, via Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which would connect the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean up to 40% faster than the current Red Sea route. Under this plan, Haifa would become Asia’s gateway into Europe, with goods being trans-shipped onwards to the port of Piraeus. A trial version featuring trucks is already being operated to work around the Houthis’ closure of the Red Sea, prompting accusations of treachery to the Arab cause towards the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. IMEC planners may have noticed the complications that would arise by the Greek port being majority-owned by China, although an ongoing US-funded $125m upgrade of the nearby Elefsina port and Italy’s decision to quit the BRI may offer the US alternatives. Greece’s ports are turning into a study in geopolitical polarization, and offer a taste of what a nation-state whose main strategic facilities have been privatized looks like: Volos and Thessaloniki are controlled by pro-Russian interests, Piraeus by Chinese, Alexandroupoli by the US, Igoumenitsa and Herakleion by the Italians, and India is eyeing Attica’s third port, Lavrio.

Both the Chinese and American trade routes largely bypass upstart Turkey, which is crafting its own trade corridor, partially through a strategic sliver of territory captured in 2023 by close ally Azerbaijan from Armenia that blew open a passage between Mediterranean Turkey and the Caspian Sea. Finally, there is also a Middle Corridor route connecting China to Turkey through Central Asia and the Caspian Sea which has seen a “huge increase” in traffic. As the world segments into blocks, the small internal markets of nation-states like Greece and Israel are conceding ever more autonomy as they snap into greater supply chains dominated by competing superpowers.

Shunning Suez: land and sea alternatives

Although the IMEC only extends to Europe, Biden’s commitment to it suggests he perceives the geopolitical dividends accruing from marshalling allies into a commercial alliance to secure a geopolitically-critical region at risk of slipping beyond US control. Were the IMEC to combine with the recently discovered natural gas reserves lying off the coast of Cyprus, Gaza, Israel and Lebanon, it would turn Tel Aviv into an energy hub selling LNG to the EU in dollars, while simultaneously shutting Russian and Iranian gas out of the European market, and strengthening India as a challenger to China. A 2020 Emirati agreement with Israel to export oil through the Eilat-Ashdod Petroleum Company, and a rail link connecting Eilat to the futuristic Saudi city of Neom would create an energy, financial and touristic hub around the Gulf of Aqaba, locking West Asia’s western flank in an area that forms the crucial linchpin between the African and Asian continents.

Oil, Zionism and a world war

This connecting region between the African and Arabian tectonic plates extends from the Mediterranean coastline of Gaza through Israel’s Negev and Jordan’s Aqaba Economic Zone to coastal Saudi Arabia. With the Houthis, their Iranian backers, and Tehran’s Chinese and Russian allies appearing as challengers, the US has marshalled a coalition to remove them. Such a conflict plays into Russian and Chinese best interests by stretching the US, and would further polarize the Arab World by derailing regional integration under Saudi stewardship while also delaying Riyadh’s efforts to transition to a post-carbon economy. Saudi is also signalling to Washington through openings to China, a rare visit abroad by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Chinese-brokered reconciliation with Iran that it should not be taken for granted as an exclusively western partner.

While great powers have competed over these geopolitical link-zones since antiquity, what is new are the relationships being created between superpower challengers to the West’s predominance and local post-independence actors. These new synergies – for example between Russia and Syria or China and Djibouti, when added to the existing pressures caused by Washington’s predating alliances with countries such as Israel and Greece, are sharpening regional rivalries and catapulting the Red Sea into a potential third front in the current global conflict. Among the several struggles currently simmering in the area between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aqaba are the Sudanese civil war, the Saudi-Houthi conflict, instability in Somalia, and tensions between landlocked Ethiopia with Egypt over the Renaissance dam, and with Djibouti over sea-access.

Diminutive Djibouti has pursued an eccentric insurance policy by making itself the country with the highest concentration of foreign military bases in the world. Among the countries basing their troops and ships within sight of the Bab el-Mandeb is China’s only overseas base. Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey are both attempting to open a base in nearby Sudan, increasing the number of players seeking to congest in the Red Sea. Eritrea may be the most volatile example after it permitted both Iran and Israel to get a foothold on its territory. The Israelis monitor Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen from a radar installation on the Emba Soira mountain and maintain a naval base on an island in Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago. Their Red Sea presence continues on the UAE-occupied Yemeni island of Socotra – a paradise of biodiversity strategically situated between the Red Sea, Somalia and Yemen – where the UAE is constructing an Israeli base. The UAE is also carrying out arbitrary construction on misappropriated land on the formerly British-controlled Yemeni island of Perim, whose position on the Straits of Mandeb is even more strategic than Socotra’s.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard uses its Eritrean perch to resupply Hamas with weapons via Sudan, and maintains an intelligence-gathering ship in the Red Sea. The ship had to be withdrawn in 2021 after Israeli divers detonated a mine against it, and was replaced by a ship suspected of signalling to the Houthis which ships to target. This was in turn withdrawn amid the April 2024 Iranian-Israeli confrontation, which marked the first time when the two countries struck each other directly. In November 2023, the Arabic-language al-Mayadeen channel quoted Eritrean security sources that unidentified assailants killed an Israeli officer in Dahlak. Such explosions of tension reveal the high potential for chaos in this over-sensitive region but, for the time being, the US remains the dominant actor in the world’s most critical centre for the flow of crude oil to Europe and beyond.

The idea of connecting the Red, Dead and Mediterranean seas via a canal exiting in Gaza has been around since 1855, when a British naval officer called William Allen proposed it as an alternative to Suez. In the 1950s and 60s, the newly-created state of Israel was subjected to a land-blockade by its hostile neighbours forcing it to receive 90% of its imports by seaborne means. Building a Ben Gurion Canal appeared a possible solution to the threat of Egypt shutting the Suez Canal (which has already prompted war between Cairo and Tel Aviv twice). A declassified 1963 US report proposed constructing it using hundreds of underground nuclear explosions, but an updated understanding of the consequences of atomic ignition diverted the project to Gaza’s valley wetlands, which offer easier digging conditions. The idea of a canal circulated again in 2021 after the Suez Canal was blocked by a container ship for 15 weeks but, as things stand, a more realistic alternative to the Suez Canal is a freight option on the Med-Red high-speed railway project. Again however, the passengers and goods would not be insured as long as there is a risk of Hamas rocket attacks. Constructing such a canal would make Israel an essential element in international trade flows and, alongside a multireligious occupied Jerusalem, upgrade its geopolitical significance.

An Eastern Med gas flareup?

The current geopolitical manoeuvres in the Red Sea and East Mediterranean are reminiscent of the sharpened competition over energy and trade routes that heralded the two world wars. The only peaceful part of the North-South Maritime Axis is currently the East Mediterranean, against a context of increased US pressure on Ankara to abandon its ambidextrous foreign policy and fully revert to the West. US allies Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus were brought closer in recent years by their shared antagonism with Turkey over the maritime gas reserves. Their intention to construct the Eastmed, a pipeline bringing LNG to Europe that would have diversified energy supplies away from Russia may have hit the rocks, but steadily rising tensions between the Greeks and Turks indicate how pressurized the East Mediterranean is becoming. The deterioration in the Israeli-Turkish relationship prompted by Gaza may also result in Eastmed’s revival. An Athens Declaration signed between Greece and Turkey temporarily stabilized the region, but bilateral relations are susceptible to the extremely fluid international situation, meaning that the East Mediterranean remains a potential fourth theatre of the current conflict.

Adapting to a new era

This series has endeavoured to show both how the Greek and Israeli nation-state entities were the product of Western efforts to safeguard their regional interests and restrict Russia from mounting a Mediterranean challenge, while demonstrating the durability and timelessness of the issues over which superpowers fight, irrespective of ideology. Much as generations of Greek and Israeli politicians presented this strategic alignment as a choice to their publics, justifying it on the grounds of either cultural affiliation or geopolitical inevitability, it remains that neither Athens nor even Tel Aviv possess critical sovereignty, and that concluding alliances with larger powers on the basis of their agendas neither serves their longterm best interests nor dispels the wider regional perception that they are western cultural creations and American appendages implementing hegemonic designs.

“Israel and Greece serve as buffers against the onslaughts not only of brown Muslim bodies ready to invade the borders of the Christian West at any given time… but also as the last frontiers of democracy, a metonym for western civilization,” writes CUNY sociology professor Despina Lalaki in a Review of Archaeology, Nation, and Race: Confronting the Past, Decolonizing the Future in Greece and Israel. “These social and political significations invested in Hellenism and Hebraism have developed into internalized structures of domination, coherent identities which perpetuate durable inequality.”

The Ukraine and Gaza conflicts erupted just as Washington sought to retain its dominance in Europe and relevance in West Asia. Israel and Greece continue to be expected to enable US strategic control over the global economy routes that their geomorphology controls, something which forces them to relinquish the creative ambiguity and broader options powering larger actors like Turkey. With global competition dangerously overheating and the US appearing overstretched, a sunset on the era of western dominance would bring both Athens and Tel Aviv face-to-face with new alliances as a matter of national survival. The Israeli and Greek states are already largely captured by domestic and international financial elites. These business communities are demonstratedly open to dealing with actors which the US classifies as geopolitical rivals. An indication of their level of state capture is that US sanctions rather than the Greek and Israeli states have succeeded in mitigating their citizens from selling powerful eavesdropping technology to rogue states or using their shadow fleets to transport Russian oil and make port calls to sanctioned Iran.

Israel faces an existential battle, while Greece’s major challenge is its irrecoverably low demographic rate. Their major ally is a superpower in decline, and they are surrounded by antagonists with younger populations. Ultimately, the question remains whether either country can escape the circumstances and conditions of their birthing in a world evolving beyond the nation-state, and to what extent they can evolve beyond their economic, morphological and creation-narrative hobbling.

“The inability to perceive alternative modes of political and social organization are intrinsically connected and closely intertwined with identities that are far from immanent or as primordial as they appear,” writes Lalaki, the sociologist. “They are, instead, socially and historically grounded on configurations and events that date back to the 19th and especially the 20th centuries; they constitute responses to the American and European Cold War order, fierce anti-communism, transatlantic militarism and free market economy.”

One thing is for sure: traces as to the hidden histories of these countries’ futures will remain embedded in the names of streets yet to be named.