After months of closed skies, Greece will allow Israelis to visit, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced Thursday after a meeting between Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi.
“I welcome Greece’s decision to allow tourism from Israel to Greece in the era of the coronavirus,” Ashkenazi said in a statement at the conclusion of the meeting in Jerusalem. “This decision expresses the warm relationship between the countries and the common desire to return to a normal routine in the coronavirus era. We hope that more European countries will also adopt this decision.”
The Foreign Ministry statement said that it was agreed that the two foreign ministries will formulate a plan that will allow Israeli tourists and businessmen to visit Greece.
No further details were given, including on testing or quarantine requirements.
According to Channel 12 news, 600 Israeli tourists will be allowed to visit Greece per week, and will be allowed to stay in only four locations: Athens, Crete, Thessaloniki and Corfu.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that Israeli tourists will be required to take a coronavirus test between arriving in Greece and their transfer to one of the four destinations. They will reportedly stay in quarantine until they receive the test results — a process that could theoretically take up to 48 hours. It was not clarified who would pay for the initial quarantine.
Since the start of the pandemic, Greece has seen 5,623 infections and 212 deaths. Israel, by sharp contrast, has recorded over 88,000 cases and 643 deaths.
Israel has one of the highest morbidity rates in the world per capita and many countries, including the European Union, currently ban visitors from there. Air travel has been at a trickle for months with Israel more or less closed to foreign nationals since March and nearly all countries banning travelers from Israel.
An official announcement regarding travel, which will include where Israelis may be able to visit without having to quarantine, will be made on Thursday at 4 p.m., according to the Health Ministry.
Dendias arrived in Israel on Thursday morning for talks with Ashkenazi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid military tensions with Turkey over an energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own.
Tensions were stoked Monday when Ankara dispatched the research ship Oruc Reis accompanied by Turkish naval vessels off the Greek island of Kastellorizo in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece also deployed warships to monitor the vessel, which is currently sailing west of Cyprus.
The incident is the latest spat over energy exploration in the oil-rich eastern Mediterranean, a frequent source of disputes between Turkey and neighbors including Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
Dendias is also to address the issue with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Vienna on Friday.
Meeting with Dendias, Netanyahu said he backs Athens in its dispute with Turkey.
“We view with severity any aggressive action in the eastern Mediterranean from any actor, including Turkey,” Netanyahu said at the start of a meeting between the two.
He noted that Israel and Greece, who are collaborating on a gas pipeline with Cyprus, have “shared geopolitical interests.”
On Wednesday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement of support for Athens on the matter.
“Israel follows closely as tension arises in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel expresses its full support and solidarity with Greece in its maritime zones and its right to delimit its [exclusive economic zone],” the Foreign Ministry said.
On Thursday, Greece’s prime minister warmly thanked France for its pledge to boost its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that French President Emmanuel Macron is “a true friend of Greece and also a fervent protector of European values and international law.”
Macron announced following a phone call with Mitsotakis late Wednesday,that he has decided to “temporarily reinforce the French military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in the coming days, in cooperation with European partners including Greece.”
Greece’s NATO and European Union ally France is the EU’s biggest military power. Complicating matters, Turkey — Greece’s historic regional rival — is also a NATO member but has poor relations with France.
The mounting tension follows Turkey’s move Monday to send a seismic research vessel, escorted by warships, into waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus to prospect for potential offshore gas and oil reserves, following similar discoveries in other parts of the region.
Greece claims part of the area is over its own continental shelf and has demanded that the Turkish ships withdraw. Turkey counters that it’s entitled to conduct research in the area. Greece placed its military on alert, and sent warships to the area off Turkey’s southern coast.
In a televised statement Wednesday, Mitsotakis warned of the “risk of an accident” in the contained area where the Greek and Turkish warships are gathered.
“In such a case, responsibility lies upon the one who gives rise to these circumstances,” he said. He added that Greece is not averse to “even the toughest dialogue,” but that “dialogue becomes irrelevant in a climate of tension and provocation.”
“We will never be the ones to escalate the situation. Yet, self-restraint is only one aspect of our power,” Mitsotakis said. “No provocation will … go unanswered.”
A similar crisis last month was averted after Turkey pulled the Oruc Reis back to hold talks with Greece and rotating EU chair Germany.
But the mood soured last week after Greece and Egypt signed an agreement to set up an exclusive economic zone in the region.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said his country would step up energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and would not “compromise” on its rights.