Netanyahu, Greek PM announce travel between countries will resume August 1

Israel to open up to Greeks and Cypriots, premier says alongside counterpart Mitsotakis; leaders say they discussed cooperation, including on EastMed gas pipe deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis give joint statements in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020. (Debbie Hill, UPI Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis give joint statements in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020. (Debbie Hill, UPI Pool via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis met Tuesday in Jerusalem and announced travel between the countries would resume in August.

Mitsotakis arrived in Israel Tuesday for a one-day visit planned to include wide-ranging talks covering energy and controversial Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

The Greek leader is leading the largest high-level delegation to Israel since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with six ministers in tow including defense, foreign and tourism.

In a joint press conference at the capital’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Netanyahu said Israel was looking to open up to Greek and Cypriot visitors starting August 1.

The date is later than the July 1 target that had been bandied about, and the current  list of countries whose citizens would be allowed in is also smaller than a larger roster suggested in previous reports.

“This all depends on the coronavirus pandemic, but if the numbers allow it this is the target date for opening up the skies,” Netanyahu said.

Mitsotakis said August 1 would also be the date when Israelis are allowed to return to Greece.

He said his goal was to put safety first. “We have worked hard to ensure visitors’ safety. There are strict instructions,” he said.

Mitsotakis earlier told the Yedioth Ahronoth paper that he was hoping to resume bilateral tourism between the countries soon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis give joint statements in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020. (Debbie Hill, UPI Pool via AP)

The talks also focused on bilateral cooperation, including on cybersecurity and agriculture, Mitsotakis said, adding that he was due to meet a group of Israeli businessmen seeking to invest in Greece.

Netanyahu said the countries have “common interests, challenges and opportunities,” and that they share intelligence.

He mentioned the EastMed deal signed by Israel, Greece and Cyprus for a huge pipeline to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, despite objections from Turkey.

“We will continue discussing the EastMed project, we are committed to that,” Netanyahu said.

On Monday, Greece welcomed the first international flights whose passengers didn’t face compulsory COVID-19 tests, to Athens and Thessaloniki. Direct international flights to other Greek airports, including its sun-kissed islands, will begin on July 1. Visitors will be subject to random virus testing.

“A lot will depend on whether people feel comfortable to travel and whether we can project Greece as a safe destination,” Mitsotakis acknowledged then.

On Sunday, a group of Israelis was not allowed to board a flight from Tel Aviv to Greece at the last moment after the airline said the country would not let them in, despite Israelis believing they had been deemed a “green country” by Athens, Channel 13 reported. However, Greece said it had to keep to EU rules which forbid entry from those outside Schengen borders until July 1 at least. Israelis with European passports were allowed to board.

The brief trip follows a visit to Jerusalem last week by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who voiced European concern over Israeli proposals to annex West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley.

The step forms part of a peace plan unveiled by US President Donald Trump in January, which has been backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wholly rejected by the Palestinians.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, center, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiadis, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose for a photograph ahead of a signing ceremony in Athens for a pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe January 2, 2020. (AP Photo)

Mitsotakis is set to visit Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial site Yad Vashem on Wednesday.

The Greek delegation will not travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, according to Israeli officials.

The European Union is weighing retaliatory measures as a response to Israeli annexation, which could begin from July 1, although sanctions would require the agreement of all 27 member states.

Israel is counting on European allies such as Austria and Hungary — who last month refused to back a resolution against annexation — and “friendly” countries such as Greece and Cyprus to tone down the EU response.

“Our request to Greece is to support us at the EU level, to make sure the European Union has sensible language when dealing with the peace plan,” an Israeli source told AFP.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and five ministers will make a one-day visit to Jerusalem next week, Israeli officials said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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