Israel reportedly in talks with EU countries for quarantine-free travel

Official decision on where Israelis may visit and where they can return from without needing to quarantine to be announced Thursday; Greek FM to visit Israel

A worker wearing protective clothing disinfects andIsrair plane after its arrival from Moscow at the Ben Gurion International Airport, May 5, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
A worker wearing protective clothing disinfects andIsrair plane after its arrival from Moscow at the Ben Gurion International Airport, May 5, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Some European countries have agreed to take in Israeli travelers without forcing them to self-quarantine, but the Jewish state is still reluctant to reciprocate and approve entry for their citizens without isolation, according to Hebrew-language media reports on Wednesday.

Israeli officials and ministers are debating a framework to “reopen the skies,” and create a travel corridor with several European states, the reports said, with talks ongoing as of Wednesday evening.

An official announcement regarding tarvel, which will include where Israelis may be able to travel without having to quarantine upon return, will be made on Thursday at 4 p.m., according to the Health Ministry.

According to Channel 12, Croatia and Bulgaria have agreed to permit Israelis to enter without isolation. Israel has yet to make a decision on whether to allow in their nationals under the same conditions.

Swimmers pay for sunbeds with an employee of a beach bar who wears a protective mask against coronavirus, at Alimos beach, near Athens, on Saturday, May 16, 2020 (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Also under discussion is travel to and from Greece, with the network saying ministers are considering the option of scrapping quarantine rules, or, alternatively, limiting Israeli travel to a single Greek island. It said no final decision had been made.

The Ynet news site, however, said Israel and Greece had clinched a deal to abolish the quarantine requirement for visitors after a phone call between Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi.

The reports were not confirmed by the Foreign Ministry.

Dendias was set to visit Israel on Thursday for talks with Ashkenazi, which were expected to focus mostly on maritime tensions between Athens and Turkey.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said the issue of travel between the two countries would also be raised.

The announcement of the decision came hours after Israel waded into the maritime gas dispute between Athens and Ankara.

“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.

Ynet claimed the agreement was approved in a phone call on Wednesday between Dendias and Ashkenazi.

Since the start of the pandemic, Croatia has seen over 5,000 coronavirus cases and 160 deaths. Bulgaria has recorded nearly 14,000 cases and 471 deaths, while Greece has 5,623 infections and 212 deaths. Israel, by sharp contrast, has recorded over 87,000 cases and 633 deaths.

Passengers wearing masks to help protect against coronavirus arrive at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

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. Only countries that have more lax entry requirements, such as Brazil, the US, Mexico, Kenya and others allow in Israelis, though in some cases they must still present negative COVID-19 tests or quarantine upon entry.

Air travel has been at a trickle for months with Israel more or less closed to foreign nationals since March and nearly all countries barring Israelis from visiting.

Last week the so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers said a proposal would be put together by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi to “reopen the skies” on August 16 to a greater number of incoming and outgoing flights.

Israel still bans entry for all non-nationals and requires everyone who enters the country, including Israelis, to quarantine for two weeks.

While the creation of a joint travel bloc with other countries has been shelved due to the resurgence of the virus in Israel, talks of reopening borders and allowing in tourists and others have ramped up in recent days, along with hopes that Israelis can soon easily travel abroad.

On Monday, the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, which oversees the country’s handling of the virus outbreak, heard that the relevant authorities have yet to formulate a plan for the resumption of travel.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

At the meeting, Health Ministry and Foreign Ministry representatives declined to specify the list of countries that Israelis may be able to travel to under the plan.

“Don’t say that the skies are opening because they are not and air travel is not resuming, and we are kidding ourselves,” committee chair Yifat Shasha-Biton berated ministry officials.

Many countries currently demand that arrivals show a negative coronavirus test from 72 hours prior to their flight. In order to accommodate this requirement, a coronavirus drive-through testing lab is being planned for outgoing travelers at Ben Gurion Airport. Passengers will be required to come by the airport 72 hours prior to their flight to be tested. Passengers will pay for their tests, with costs estimated at several hundred shekels per test.

A tender for building and operating the lab was published last week by the Israel Airports Authority. Applicants are required to be able to carry out 800 tests an hour and to provide results within 14 hours.

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