Nearly two weeks after Israel called on the help of neighbors and others to fight a spurt of brush fires, Jerusalem said it will partner with two of those countries — Cyprus and Greece — to form a regional emergency response force.
The announcement came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled in Jerusalem with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades for talks centered on regional cooperation Thursday.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the regional emergency force will initially be composed of the three Mediterranean allies, but that they “want to add additional countries to a joint operations center for emergency situations such as fires, earthquakes, flooding,” and other types of emergencies that may arise.
Israel was wracked for several days last month by a rash of brushfires that burned thousands of acres and damaged hundreds of homes, and the country was forced to ask allies to send firefighting planes and other equipment and personnel to help fight the blazes.
Greece and Cyprus were two of the first countries that sent planes to Israel.
The leaders of the three countries pledged “to plan a structure for the force and to divide its mission between different countries,” as it will “greatly help security” and protect the “lives of the citizens all the countries here in the region, as well as others.”
The talks were the second of a series of tripartite meetings meant to help the three countries deal with developing and exporting large gas reserves found recently in the eastern Mediterranean.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s office said that the meeting would focus on “the strategic importance” of the three countries’ relations and their role in “strengthening stability” in the region.
The Prime Minister’s Office stated that more details of what was discussed in the meeting will be published later on Thursday.
Netanyahu met separately with both Tsipras and Anastasiades at the King David Hotel before their joint meeting. In addition to the pledge to establish a regional emergency force, they also signed a research agreement.
At an earlier summit in Nicosia, Cyprus, in January, Netanyahu, Tsipras and Anastasiades pledged to form a trilateral committee to study plans to build a pipeline between Israel and Cyprus and on to Greece for gas exports to Europe, an issue expected to feature prominently in their discussions on Thursday.
Following the summit in Cyprus, Netanyahu said they also discussed and underwater electricity grid between the three countries, cooperation in water management, tourism, the high-tech sector and firefighting as well as search-and-rescue missions in the eastern Mediterranean.
The growing ties between Israel and Greece and Cyprus in recent years largely came following increasing tension between Israel and Turkey.
However, ties between Israel and Turkey have thawed in recent months, with talks underway for building a gas pipeline through Turkey.
In January, Netanyahu said that “our cooperation with Greece and Cyprus stands on its own… It does not depend on our efforts to normalize our relations with Turkey.”
Israel has previously called for Turkey to respect Cyprus’s right to explore for natural gas and avoid sparking additional tension in the region.
With Israel finding large reserves of gas close to where Cyprus is drilling, the two countries are looking to cooperate on energy issues such as exporting Israeli gas.
Turkey was a key regional ally of Israel until the two countries fell out over the storming by Israeli commandos in 2010 of a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, bound for Gaza.
However, in June Israel and Turkey signed a deal that again normalizes relations between the two countries, and last week Israel’s recently appointed ambassador to Turkey arrived in Ankara for the first time in five years.
Agencies contributed to this report