Meeting Greek leaders in Athens, Herzog stops short of criticizing Russia on Ukraine

President calls on ‘relevant sides to solve conflict’ after Moscow’s invasion; trip comes ahead of visit to Ankara next month aimed at bringing ties out of deep freeze

President Isaac Herzog meets in Athens with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, on February 24, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog meets in Athens with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, on February 24, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

ATHENS — President Isaac Herzog declined to condemn Russia directly for its invasion of Ukraine during a state visit to Greece on Thursday.

Meeting Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Herzog said he was praying for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

“This morning I feel great sadness, fearing humanitarian tragedy and God forbid harm to innocent civilians,” Herzog said, “and I pray like many around the world that peace will return in this conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”

Herzog reiterated Israel’s support for “the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” and called for Israeli citizens to “return immediately to Israel right now through land crossings.”

He also vowed to “care for the fate of the Jewish community in Ukraine,” and to offer “all possible humanitarian cooperation” to the government of Ukraine.”

“We call on the relevant sides to solve the conflict,” he added, during a separate meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki.

President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens, on February 24, 2022. (Tal Schneider)

The lightning trip is expected to be overshadowed by his upcoming visit to Greece’s regional rival Turkey. The one-day jaunt to the Greek capital came 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, dominated talks in Athens, along with the nascent Eastern Mediterranean energy partnership.

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.

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. (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.”

“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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