Greek foreign minister talks Turkey, tourism in Israel

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Danidas came to Israel bearing gifts — news that Israeli tourists will be able to enter the country — likely in return for Jerusalem's continued support for Athens in its conflict against Ankara.

al-monitor Israel's Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias bump elbows at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Aug. 13 2020. Photo by Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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israel-turkey relations, cyprus, tourism, israeli foreign policy, greece, turkey-greece relations

Aug 13, 2020

There were no handshakes but plenty of smiles at the meeting this morning, Aug. 13, between Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias. Dendias arrived to Jerusalem for a snap visit, meeting first with Ashkenazi and then with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The visit comes just two months after that of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakisis on June 16. Like Mitsotakisis, Dendias was not asked to enter isolation and the meetings in both cases took place in Jerusalem.

Dendias arrived to Jerusalem only three days before the expected reopening of Israeli skies on Aug. 16. A statement by Israel’s Foreign Ministry after the meeting said that Greece will now allow Israelis to visit. “I welcome Greece’s decision to allow tourism from Israel to Greece in the era of the coronavirus. This decision expresses the warm bond between the countries and the common desire to return to a normal life. … I hope that more European countries will follow suit.’’

The statement gave no further details, but according to reports, 600 Israeli tourists will be allowed to visit Greece per week. The tourists will be allowed to visit four locations: Athens, Crete, Thessaloniki and Corfu. The Israeli tourists will probably need to undergo two tests — one before their flight, and one upon arrival to Greece — and will reportedly be quarantined until they receive the test results, which might take up until 48 hours. Israel’s Health Ministry is expected to issue a statement this afternoon about Israeli tourism abroad and the countries that are set to open their gates to Israelis. Cyprus is expected to be one of them.

Dendias' visit was also significant in terms of security and diplomacy. Tensions between Greece and Turkey flared on Aug. 10, when Ankara dispatched the research ship Oruc Reis accompanied by Turkish naval vessels off the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Greece deployed warships to monitor the vessels. On Aug. 12, Israel’s embassy in Greece tweeted a statement of support for Athens, saying, 

Israel is closely monitoring the escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean,” and “Israel expresses its full support and solidarity with Greece, its maritime zones and the right to determine its [exclusive economic zone].”

The unusual Israeli statement was widely quoted in Greece. Turkey certainly also took note. Following the statement and ahead of Danidas' visit, Israeli Ambassador Yossi Amrani met with the Greek foreign minister on Aug. 12. The two men reportedly discussed bilateral issues as well as the alleged Turkish violations.

In a statement ahead of the meeting with Dendias, Netanyahu said that ties between Greece and Israel are expanding, in part due to the “shared geopolitical interests of two democratic countries in the eastern Mediterranean.” Netanyahu also spoke out against Turkey’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, stating, “Of course we take any aggressive actions in the eastern Mediterranean seriously from any actors, including Turkey.’’

After his meetings in Jerusalem, Dendias tweeted his thanks to his Israeli hosts for their position on the conflict with Turkey.

Israel and Greece have become close allies in recent years, especially over the EastMed undersea pipeline project that will carry Israeli gas to southern Europe. On July 19, Israel’s government ratified  the EastMed pipeline agreement, which was signed last January with the governments of Cyprus and Greece. The agreement has strengthened the alliance being forged between Jerusalem and Athens but also added a layer to the hostility building between Jerusalem and Ankara ever since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.

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