Sunday, August 15, 2010

Netanyahu to Meet Papandreou as first Israeli PM to visit Greece as Israeli Ties with Turkey Founder

(Bloomberg).Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes the first-ever visit by an Israeli premier to Greece as Israel’s ties with Turkey have soured after a May 31 naval commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla left nine Turks dead.

Netanyahu’s trip, which begins today, follows a visit to Israel last month by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. The Israeli leader is scheduled to meet Papandreou, President Karolos Papoulias and members of the Greek Jewish community.

Netanyahu’s visit comes less than three months after the deadly flotilla incident led Turkey, once considered Israel’s strongest ally in the region, to recall its ambassador and scale back military cooperation. In the wake of the naval raid, the Israeli leader’s visit to Athens is an opportunity to strengthen ties with another country in the eastern Mediterranean.

“For many years the Greeks were a little unhappy with the intensity of Israeli-Turkish relations,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry. “Now, with relations with Turkey under a cloud the Greeks are a little more upfront about their relationship with Israel.”

Trade between the two countries was $522 million in 2008, falling to $496 million in 2009, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. During Papandreou’s visit, the two leaders pledged to work more closely on energy, tourism and agriculture.

Netanyahu’s visit shouldn’t be viewed though as an attempt to counter Turkey’s downgrading of its ties with the Jewish state by building a relationship with Greece, Israeli analysts say.

Netanyahu wants to improve Israel’s image abroad, said Alon Liel, another former foreign ministry director general. “Israel is not so popular these days so if you’re invited to go to visit a full member of the European Union like Greece, why not?” he said.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said the trip is intended to strengthen bilateral ties during a period of “new dynamism in Israeli-Greek relations.”