Netanyahu set to visit Greece

First Israeli PM to go; product of worsening relations with Turkey.

Netanyahu looking over shoulder 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Netanyahu looking over shoulder 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to go to Athens next week, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday, adding that this will be the first ever visit by an Israeli premier to Greece.
The visit, coming three weeks after Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou visited Israel, is a testament to the rapidly warming ties between the two countries, and – according to sources – is not disconnected to the tension between Israel and Turkey, Greece’s long time adversary.
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“This trip shows the new dynamism in the relationship between Israel and Greece,” one diplomatic official said. In addition to meeting Papandreou in Israel last month, Netanyahu also coincidentally met him at a Moscow restaurant during a visit there in February.
The Prime Minister’s Office would neither confirm nor deny speculation that among the issues that will be discussed will be the possibility of an agreement on allowing Israeli jets to train in Greek skies.
Since the deterioration in Israeli-Turkish ties that was accelerated after Operation Cast Lead a year and a half ago, the IAF has been looking for other places – such as Romania, where an IAF helicopter crashed last month – to train.
Following the flotilla incident on May 31, Turkey closed its skies to Israeli military aircraft.
In May, the IAF held a joint exercise with the Greek Air Force in Greek airspace, and already two years ago some 100 IAF aircraft flew over Greece in a long-range training mission perceived as a dress rehearsal for a strike against Iran.
Netanyahu’s discussions in Greece are also expected to address expanding bilateral cooperation in a gamut of areas, including tourism, trade, establishment of a political dialogue and defense issues.
The recent sharp deterioration in ties with Turkey has also led to a warming of ties with other traditional Turkish rivals in the region, such as Cyprus and Bulgaria.
Both the Cypriot and Bulgarian foreign ministers were in the country earlier this year.
Papandreou, whose father, Andreas, was prime minister of Greece twice (1981- 1989 and 1993-1996) and was known for pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli leanings, has chartered a much more moderate policy toward Israel than his predecessors since taking office in October.
Before his visit last month, one Israeli official said that Greece, once considered among the harshest critics of Israel inside the EU, along with countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Portugal and Belgium, was no longer in that “basket.”
In addition to their meetings over the last year, Netanyahu and Papandreou have spoken a number of times by phone, since some of the ships trying to break the blockade of Gaza have left from Greek ports.
In a briefing before Papandreou’s visit here last month, one diplomatic official said that the Greeks – looking at the Israeli-Turkish and Turkish-US tensions – are realizing that strategic alliances in the region are shifting, and that this might be a good time to get closer to Israel as a way of warming ties with Washington.
When Israel had a close strategic alliance with Turkey, the official said, Athens gave up any thought of forging such an alliance with Israel. But now that the situation with Ankara has changed dramatically, Athens is seeing more opportunities with Jerusalem.