Herzog heads to Greece for state visit as Turkey détente brews

President to meet Greek counterpart and other top officials as he hits up regional partners before upcoming trip next month meant to bring ties with Ankara out of deep freeze

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: President Isaac Herzog boards a plane as he sets off for Ukraine to participate in memorial ceremony marking the 80th anniversary since the babi Yar massacre. (Haim Zach / GPO)
Illustrative: President Isaac Herzog boards a plane as he sets off for Ukraine to participate in memorial ceremony marking the 80th anniversary since the babi Yar massacre. (Haim Zach / GPO)

President Isaac Herzog was set to meet Thursday with the Greek president and prime minister in Athens on a lightning trip expected to be overshadowed by his upcoming visit to Greece’s regional rival Turkey.

The one-day jaunt to the Greek capital will come a week before Herzog is slated to visit Cyprus, another Turkish rival, amid a potential sea change in regional alliances percolating through the eastern Mediterranean.

Herzog’s upcoming visit to Turkey, set to take place in the next few weeks though no finalized date has been announced, will likely dominate talks in Athens, along with the nascent Eastern Mediterranean energy partnership.

The president is scheduled to meet Greek counterpart Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who had invited him, on Thursday morning, before separate talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Parliament Speaker Konstantinos Tasoulas and opposition leader Alex Tsipras. On March 2, he is slated to fly to Cyprus and meet with President Nicos Anastasiades.

In a statement released Sunday afternoon, Herzog said that during the trips to Greece and Cyprus, he would discuss “steps to broaden and deepen the rich collaboration between our nations.”

Anastasiades and Mitsotakis were in Israel in December for a trilateral summit with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Herzog hosted separate working meetings with both leaders as well.

Herzog had been planning on traveling to Greece later in the year but the trip was moved up and the Cyprus part added after the Turkey visit was announced, according to an official in the president’s office.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks ahead of the eighth Greece-Cyprus-Israel summit alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left) and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, December 7, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have experienced a burgeoning friendship in recent years, partnering on energy and holding joint military drills, but a relaunch of Israel-Turkey bilateral relations could complicate the alliance.

Once allies, ties between Jerusalem and Ankara were largely frozen over the last decade; the last high-level Israeli visit to Turkey was a 2016 trip by then-energy minister Yuval Steinitz. Herzog’s trip to Turkey, which follows phone calls between leaders in both capitals and lower-level diplomatic contacts, is seen as a careful first step in restoring full diplomatic ties between the erstwhile allies.

But Greece and Cyprus remain bitterly opposed to Turkey and tensions remain over maritime boundaries and mineral exploitation rights in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean have recently renewed. A Turkish oil and gas survey in 2020 resulted in a tense naval standoff between the countries and hostilities renewed Wednesday when the Greek coast guard fired warning shots at a Turkish fishing vessel it said had tried to ram the patrol boat near the island of Chios in the eastern Aegean Sea.

Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus had been buoyed by a $7 billion project to build a 1,900-kilometer (1,180-mile) pipeline that would carry natural gas from offshore rigs in the Mediterranean to Europe. The project had been backed by the US and vociferously opposed by Turkey, which claims some of the Turkish and Cypriot gas fields as its own. However, last month, Washington reversed its support, citing a commitment to cleaner types of energy.

(FILES) This file photo taken on August 23, 2019 in Istanbul shows a view of Turkish General Directorate of Mineral research and Exploration’s (MTA) Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. Greece on August 11, 2020 demanded that Turkey withdraw a research ship at the heart of their growing dispute over maritime rights and warned it would defend its sovereignty, calling for an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers to resolve the crisis. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Reports indicated that the US was also opposed to the plan due to the exclusion of Turkey, which it saw as contributing to regional instability. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in recent weeks openly broached the possibility of cooperating with Israel to transport gas to Europe.

In a statement ahead of the trip, Herzog said that “Israel, Greece and Cyprus are partners in an alliance of stability in the Mediterranean.”

During his trip to Athens, Herzog will also speak with the city’s mayor, lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and meet with representatives of the local Jewish community before flying home Thursday night.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas pays tribute during a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in central Athens, on Monday, December 21, 2015 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

“These state visits are expressions of the profound friendship between our peoples and of our strategic partnership,” Herzog said.

The president told a conference on Wednesday that climate change would be a focus of his visits, confirming his Turkey trip publicly for the first time.

“Over the next month I am going to visit our neighbors along the Mediterranean littoral — Greece, Cyprus and Turkey — and to meet their leaders,” he said. “In addition to them, I remain in close and warm contact with the leadership of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority. I intend to get them all on board for a regional partnership confronting the climate crisis.”

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