Netanyahu to Ask Greek PM to Soften European Reaction to Annexation in Tuesday Visit

While Netanyahu seeks diplomatic support in Brussels, Greek leader expected to talk economics, after coronavirus pandemic fallout deals heavy blow to tourism industry, joint plans for natural gas exports

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in his office in the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece March 7, 2020.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in his office in the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece March 7, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is due to arrive in Israel on Tuesday for a two-day visit, with the issue of Israel's annexation of the West Bank, and the two countries' economic ties on the agenda.

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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 two sides are expected to discuss President Donald Trump’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to ask the Greek leader for assistance in moderating the European Union’s response to Israel’s upcoming annexation plans in the West Bank.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers recognized that the Trump plan presented an opportunity, as it "created a certain momentum about a political process that had stopped for too long."

"This momentum can be used to start joint international efforts on the basis of existing internationally-agreed parameters," said Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, in a roundup of the conversation the European ministers had with their U.S. counterpart, Mike Pompeo. "We, from the European Union, stand ready to help and to facilitate such a process."

This conciliatory approach was mitigated by a clear warning from, according to Borrell, many member states "about the consequences of a possible annexation for the prospects of a two-state solution, but also for regional stability."

Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers by videoconference at the European Council building in Brussels, June 15, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

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.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Kyriakos Mitsotakis meet in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2019.Credit: Haim Zach/GPO

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.

If Israel’s interests are of a diplomatic nature, the Greek delegation is more likely to focus on the economic side of relations. The Greek delegation is likely to seek the expedition of a plan to open up tourist traffic between the two countries.

Up for discussion are also steps to promote the stability in the Mediterranean region and the joint Israeli-Greek gas pipeline. According to experts, the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic will place new obstacles in the way of the project, which was already making slow progress.

An Israeli gas platform west of Israel's port city of AshdodCredit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Greece, which is economically reliant on the tourism industry, is expected to be among the first countries to reopen to Israeli tourists. The initial plan was to allow Israeli citizens into the country as of this week, but European directives bar entry of nationals from countries outside the free movement Schengen area until July 1 at least, according to Iris Ambor, the director of the Southern Europe Department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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.

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