In search of closer ties

The first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to Greece led yesterday to Benjamin Netanyahu and his Greek counterpart George Papandreou announcing the formation of a joint Greek-Israeli committee that will examine ways of strengthening ties between the two countries in a range of areas. The panel will look at cooperation on economic issues, investments, tourism, the exchange of technical know-how and energy and water resources, the two leaders decided. The agreement comes at the end of a flurry of diplomatic activity between the two countries. Less than a month ago, Papandreou became the first Greek prime minister to visit Israel since Athens formally recognized it in 1993. Yesterday, he said that Netanyahu’s reciprocal visit was a sign of the strengthening bond between the two countries, which have not always seen eye to eye. Papandreou said that the talks with Netanyahu would soon be followed by meetings between other government officials and businessmen from the two countries. Diplomatic sources said that closer military cooperation between the two countries should also be expected. Greece and Israel have already cooperated on air force exercises and Netanyahu’s government appears keen to build on this. Israel’s limited air space means that it is reliant on cooperation with other countries for its pilots to get the training they need. The deterioration of its relationship with Turkey means that Israel is now looking at Greece to fulfill this role, sources said. However, Israeli officials have denied that the Mediterranean country may be looking to play Greece against Turkey in order to jolt Ankara. An official traveling with Netanyahu quoted him as saying both Israel and Greece want to improve ties with Turkey. «Certainly this [visit] doesn’t harm that, it can only help,» he told Reuters. Papandreou, meanwhile, again offered to help get the Middle East peace process moving again. «It is necessary that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians begin immediately,» he said. «This is the most useful way to achieve a viable peace. We will contribute in any way we can.» Netanyahu is due to pay a short visit to the Saronic Gulf island of Poros today before returning to Israel.