Netanyahu Sets August 1 Target for Renewing Foreign Tourism, 'Greece and Cyprus First'

In Jerusalem meeting with Greek prime minister, Israeli leader says aiming to 'reopen tourism' with regular flights after coronavirus halt

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Kyriakos Mitsotakis during their meeting in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Kyriakos Mitsotakis during their meeting in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020.Credit: Haim Zach/GPO
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he aims to renew regular flights to and from Israel by August 1. In a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Netanyahu said: "We are looking now into reopening tourism, in which case Greece and Cyprus will be the first."

In a joint statement the two leaders delivered following their meeting at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem, Mitsotakis added that foreign tourists are important to Greece and his country will prioritize tourists' health and safety: "If all goes to plan, on August 1 we'll open tourist destinations to Israelis."

Following the leaders’ statement, teams from the Israeli foreign and transportation ministries began working with their Greek and Cypriot counterparts to establish a plan to renew tourism in August.

Greece opened its main airports to mainly EU visitors on Monday. Israel – some 1.2 million of whose citizens travelled to Greece annually in recent years – is a big market for Greek tourism.

Mitsotakis also hailed the "tremendous importance" of trilateral relations with Israel and Cyprus. Mitsotakis said the joint Israeli-Greek gas pipeline project is "of great significance" for Europe as a whole.

Neither leader made reference to Israel's plans to begin annexing parts of the West Bank on July 1, but the Greek leader did reaffirm his commitment to international law on the background of his country's tensions with Turkey.

He cited "recent incidents of illegal and provocative Turkish behaviour at our sea, air and land border" and "the destabilising effect that Turkey has made vis-a-vis its relationship with Libya".

Turkey, which has declared part of the eastern Mediterranean a shared exploration area with Libya, says it is within its sovereign rights.

Mitsotakis, the scion of an illustrious political family who won a snap election a year ago at the head of the right-wing New Democracy party, is coming at the helm of a delegation that includes six ministers and deputy ministers from his cabinet. This will be the first overnight stay in Israel by a foreign diplomatic delegation since Israel closed its border in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Greek delegation will meet with the Israeli cabinet following the meeting between the two leaders. On Tuesday evening, Netanyahu will host Mitsotakis and his wife for dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence.

Israel’s relations with Greece and its natural ally Cyprus, a fellow EU member, have become considerably closer in recent years, especially since the discovery and subsequent exploitation of natural gas in the Mediterranean Basin. The three have a joint strategic interest in mitigating Turkish influence in the region. They have also confronted Syria and Lebanon after squabbles over the development of natural gas in their respective offshore economic zones. Israel and Cyprus have large reserves of offshore natural gas in the Mediterranean and wish to export them to European customers, together with Greece, Italy and Egypt.

This improvement in relations led to the establishment of a forum to promote the three countries’ joint interests in 2016. They also conduct joint military exercises that, according to foreign reports, have on occasion included participation from several Arab countries.

Greece and Cyprus have also considerably softened their positions on Israel within international bodies, particularly at the European Union. But unlike Hungary, for example, Athens and Nicosia still highlight their support for European principles when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supporting a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

Israel does not expect that Greece will support Israeli annexation of the West Bank but rather that they could moderate the opposition to the move if the EU wishes to issue a joint consensus declaration on behalf of all 27 member countries. It must be noted that the European Union has had difficulty presenting any kind of a unified front for many years, on most issues.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades is also due to visit Israel with a delegation from his cabinet next week. Cyprus has announced that, due to the recent upsurge in coronavirus cases in Israel, it expects to reconsider a plan to allow Israelis to enter the country at this time.

Greek PM Mitsotakis will be meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi during his visit as well. Several members of the Greek delegation, which includes the country’s ministers of defense, foreign affairs, tourism, environment and energy, development, and digital governance, will meet with their Israeli counterparts.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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