NEWS

Papandreou forges new bonds in Israel

Ending another whistle-stop diplomatic tour yesterday, Prime Minister George Papandreou forged closer ties with Israel before conveying a message of hope for peace in the Middle East from his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Papandreou, also Greece’s foreign minister, has spent much of the last nine months that PASOK has been in power traveling abroad, often seeming more comfortable on the international rather than domestic stage. The premier certainly appeared unfazed yesterday as he shuttled between Jerusalem and Palestine at the end of a two-day visit to the region. Following a chance meeting with Netanyahu in a Moscow restaurant where the pair had a long discussion, Papandreou became the first Greek prime minister to visit Israel since Athens formally recognized the country in 1993. However, he did so amid a somewhat tense atmosphere following the storming by Israeli commandos of six aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip in June. Two of the vessels were Greek and there were 35 Greek activists on board. Some of the Greeks claimed they were mistreated by Israeli forces. Although this issue was not raised publicly, Papandreou welcomed recent steps taken by Israel to ease the Gaza blockade. «These are very important steps aimed at changing conditions on the ground to lead to a political process,» he said. «We are sure that direct talks with the Palestinians will begin soon. I believe that a feasible peace, a just peace, on the basis of two states for two peoples is possible. That is the message I will take to Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.» However, Papandreou was also given another message to convey to the Palestinians, with whom Greece traditionally has good relations. «I am not skeptical about peace with the Palestinians, and neither are you,» Netanyahu told his Greek counterpart. «I would be happy if you would give Abbas this message.» Before traveling to Ramallah, the Greek leader agreed to «a major upgrade of relations between Israel and Greece on a range of bilateral issues,» according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office, which did not give more details. During his trip, Papandreou also took a call from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who is keen to hold talks with Papandreou and Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov about energy projects. Sources said a visit by Putin to Athens in August is in the cards.