Israel: Blue Flag 2019 and the wager for Greece

Greece should provide tangible evidence to the Israeli side that it is in a position to replace a Turkish “security pillow”. The regular Blue Flag military exercise, known as the “Blue Flag”, which is being organized by the Israeli Air Force every two years in November, has been underway since Sunday 3 November. The first “Blue Flag” took place in 2013 and was designed to be the largest international exercise of its kind by Israeli standards. Since then, the publicity it has gained is largely due to its international character. In purely Israeli context, this exercise, in addition to its purely military character, is also commented on because of its diplomatic implications.

by Gabriel Haritos*

In 2017, Greece made its first appearance in the “Blue Flag” exercise. It was the largest international air exercise in local annals, with a total of 1,200 military personnel and 80 warplanes. In addition to Greece, the USA, India, Poland, Germany, France and Italy participated in the exercise – a fact that contributed to the publicity it had received at the time. This year, Greece is participating for the second time.

A military exercise with political semantics
Every international military exercise is also of political importance. Especially in the case of Israel, because of the particular circumstances that this country has faced over the years, the vital areas of diplomacy and military cooperation are inextricably linked. Each foreign participation has its own semantics and demonstrates something important about Israel’s bilateral relations with that country at the moment.

In this light, it is worthwhile to look at the participation of foreign countries in the “Blue Flag”, which took place in that not-so-distant November 2017.

To begin with, the US involvement was self-evident and there is no need for further commentary, except that the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem was hotly debated at the time – which was finally completed a few months later in May 2018.

India’s participation at the time was what was impressive. This was linked to Narendra Modi’s official visit to Israel a few months earlier, in July 2017. It was the first official visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Israel, opening a new chapter in their bilateral relations, which until then, historically speaking, weren’t the best.

Poland’s participation made a similar impression – a development that can also be explained: Israel had already begun promoting its relations with the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary – better known as the V4). The Israeli intention was for the V4 to express a permanent and solid pro-Israel voice within the EU. Israeli diplomacy had realized that the governments of those countries had begun to suffocate from the intense criticism of other EU member states, over their reluctance to comply with key obligations affecting so-called European cohesion and failing to comply with the very sensitive criteria for the quality of political culture.

Israel’s efforts to seal diplomatically affiliation with the V4 countries was to be capped by holding a summit in Jerusalem with their leaders, which was then scheduled to take place in February 2019 (an effort that ultimately proved to be lower than Israeli expectations). However, Poland’s involvement in that “Blue Flag” exercise clearly moved within Israel’s overall framework of rapprochement with the Visegrad countries.

Germany’s involvement is also easily explained. In July 2017, a deal to sell ultra-modern German submarines to the Israeli Navy was signed (though a few months later, that deal tended to be added to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many headaches, given that Israeli judicial authorities began to look into the legitimacy of German-Israeli financial transactions).

As for the participation of Greece, Italy and France – it is obviously linked to regional energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was at that time that Italy finally secured its own important position on the map of Mediterranean natural gas, France increasingly strengthened its presence in the region through the establishment of its investment interests in the Mediterranean and, of course, Greece sought to strengthen its links with its relatively new regional partner – at a time when the US was increasingly encouraged this.

Syria has changed things
This November is very different from November 2017. In Syria, balances have been upset. President Trump is already implementing the gradual withdrawal from the Syrian civil war – a thought first expressed clearly by his predecessor Barack Obama, which is now being implemented. Turkey’s role in Syria is strengthened, Kurdish Rojava is virtually no longer there, and Russia and Iran intend to fill any other gaps in influence on Syrian battlefields – and no one knows where else.

Finally, on 6 November, Tehran announced that it intends to enrich uranium, presaging who knows what else might arise in relation to the Iranian nuclear program – a red flag for Israel. The following day, international observers confirmed that Iran had indeed enriched uranium, just as the Tehran government had promised. This is a development that will undoubtedly be of interest to us in the immediate future.

This roughly summarizes the underlying tense situation in today’s Middle East, with this year’s Israeli Blue Flag exercise involving a smaller number of countries. In addition to Greece, the US, Germany, and Italy are participating this year. And Israel’s communication policy this time is significantly different from previous times.

Israeli “breadth” is strengthened
Unlike most of the reports on the Greek internet, which allegedly “reveal” the various scenarios of the exercise – the Israeli Air Force preferred a Spartan press release, as there was nothing left to say. A week ago, the head of the IDF himself, General Aviv Kochavi , said almost everything.

Specifically, on October 24, 2019, in a rare appearance in front of military editors of local newspapers, General Kochavi announced the basic principles that will govern the multi-year equipment program recommended to Netanyahu’s government. The name of this is “Tnufa” (“Breadth”). It is no mere coincidence that this sudden announcement coincided with the US withdrawal from Syria and the courteous concession of Rojava to the Turkish military.

Kochavi has been sounding the alarm for the uncertain times approaching, when the decline of US presence in the wider area east of the Israeli border will force Israel to find effective alternative – and credible – regional allies. “Iran is reinforcing its presence in countries that do not fully control their sovereignty,” he said, implying, of course, Syria and Iraq. However, it did not hesitate to name Lebanon as “already troubled”, describing it as “a  country hostage to Hezbollah, a political organization that maintains its own army, which de facto defines Lebanon’s defense and procurement policy.”

As for where the Israeli interest in the future will turn – it is also clear: In areas beyond its northern borders, namely Syria, where Iran’s precision missile systems, with operational capabilities capable of striking any target they want within Israeli territory, is said to be stabilizing its presence. As if that were not enough, the Israeli press, citing military sources, commented extensively on the information that Iranian precision missile systems have already been deployed in Yemen, and that Israel is within their range.

‘Vital Israeli interests at stake’
The Tnufa program includes strengthening Israeli armed forces with unmanned military aircraft, further expanding and deploying the Iron Dome system, enhancing cyber defence software and a multitude of restructuring in the military and civilian organizational structure.

Kochavi’s goal is for this equipment program to be fully implemented by January 1, 2020. However, without the budget being passed by parliament – and above all, without a government, a prime minister, a national defence minister and a finance minister, none of this can happen.

While Netanyahu and Gantz do not decide to settle a long-standing political stalemate, growing numbers of voices in the IDF are calling for an end to the situation. It is noteworthy that on November 5, 2019, as transmitted by state broadcasters, the head of IDF Operations, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, in a closed meeting he had with the Finance Ministry Budget Department competent Committee’s on Military Expenditure, stated that “2020 will endanger vital Israeli interests.” And the New Year of 2020 is approaching.

The necessity of adopting the new multiannual equipment program is acknowledged by everyone: Both Benjamin Netanyahu, who has accepted the suggestions of army chiefs, as well as his political opponent (and likely future government partner) Benny Gantz. After all, as we have already stated extensively in this column if there is something the two political leaders fully agree on is that the Iranian threat must be dealt with promptly and systematically. Even opposition Haaretz newspaper admits that Netanyahu’s statements on the need to deal with the Iranian threat immediately, “although they may serve him to maintain his hold on power – however, no one can deny that they are completely grounded.”

The Greek wager that must be won
So it is clear that Israel is slowly but steadily entering a period of intense preparation to deal with the expansion of the Iranian presence in the region. And this year’s Blue Flag is clearly moving on this level.

This year’s US involvement is self-evident, and just as it was two years ago, no further comment is needed this time. The same goes for Germany’s involvement, which continues to be one of the main countries that equip the Israeli military machine. The participation of Italy and Greece is apparently related to the deeper regional cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean on the occasion of natural gas deposits in the Cypriot EEZ.

However, the Greek participation this time seems to involve additional semantics, which should be noted:

Reinforcing Turkey’s role in Syria, as well as the arguments put forward by the Ankara government to justify the creation of a security zone within Syrian territory, domestically and internationally, coincides with the corresponding argument adopted by the government of Israel, when it too had previously established its own security zone in southern Lebanon.

In addition, at a purely intra-Syrian level, both Turkey and Israel are currently in agreement with both the US and Russia – perhaps not to the same degree, but certainly in a markedly coordinated way.

Athens senses that Turkey and Israel, in view of the fragile situation in Syria, will find themselves facing similar threats, asymmetric or not. When that time comes, Greece will have to provide tangible evidence to the Israeli side that it is able to replace a Turkish “security pillow”.

Does Greece have such a deterrent to prevent Israel from “turning about” and forestalling any return to the once familiar Ankara-Jerusalem axis? This is a wager that the Greek side feels it must win. Otherwise, the trade-offs that Turkey will ask from Israel, especially with regard to the energy map of the Eastern Mediterranean, always focusing on Cyprus, will certainly be in a position to bear unpleasant surprises.

From this simple point of view, it is easy to explain Greece’s decision to participate in the “Blue Flag” this year, which ends on November 14, 2019.

The original article appeared in Greek in

*Gabriel Haritos, PhD Postdoctoral Fellow, Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs, University of Nicosia.