Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making the first-ever visit by an Israeli premier to Greece after Israel’s ties with Turkey soured following a May 31 naval commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla left nine Turks dead.
Netanyahu’s trip, which begins today, follows a visit to Israel last month by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. The Israeli leader will meet Papandreou and members of the Greek Jewish community.
The visit comes less than three months after the deadly flotilla incident led Turkey, once considered Israel’s strongest ally in the region, to recall its ambassador and scale back military cooperation. In the wake of the naval raid, the Israeli leader’s visit to Athens is an opportunity to strengthen ties with another country in the eastern Mediterranean.
“For many years the Greeks were a little unhappy with the intensity of Israeli-Turkish relations,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Now, with relations with Turkey under a cloud, the Greeks are a little more upfront about their relationship with Israel.”
President Barack Obama personally warned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his country risks not getting some of the weapons it wants from the U.S. unless it improves relations with Israel, the Financial Times reported today, citing an unidentified administration official.
Trade between Israel and Greece was $522 million in 2008, falling to $496 million in 2009, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Trade includes basic metals, chemicals, and plastics, according to the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute. During Papandreou’s visit, the two leaders pledged to work more closely on energy, tourism and agriculture.
Netanyahu’s visit shouldn’t be viewed as an attempt to counter Turkey’s downgrading of its ties with the Jewish state by building a relationship with Greece, Israeli analysts say.
The Israeli premier wants to improve Israel’s image abroad, said Alon Liel, another former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Israel is not so popular these days, so if you’re invited to go to visit a full member of the European Union like Greece, why not?” he said.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said the trip came during a period of “new dynamism in Israeli-Greek relations.”
Protests in Athens
Pro-Palestinian groups in Greece were planning a march to the Israeli embassy in Athens to protest Netanyahu’s visit. One group, the Worker’s Revolutionary Party, called the Israeli leader a “murderer” for ordering the commando raid on the flotilla.
While there has been a freeze at the diplomatic level, trade ties between Turkey and Israel have remained open, including Turkey’s purchase of military aircraft. Turkey is Israel’s biggest commercial partner nation in the region, with sales worth $2.5 billion last year, including metals, petrochemicals and textiles.
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