Israeli premier to visit Greek Cyprus in February

Israeli premier to visit Greek Cyprus in February

JERUSALEM - Agence France-Presse
Israeli premier to visit Greek Cyprus in February

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. REUTERS photo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Greek Cyprus in February, an official said on Thursday, becoming the country's first premier to visit the island nation.

"There is a plan to visit Cyprus in February," the Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity, after Haaretz newspaper reported that Netanyahu was to make the trip on February 16.

Netanyahu's office and the foreign ministry declined to give any details on the visit, which the paper said was to focus on Israeli- Greek Cyprus cooperation on drilling for gas in offshore fields between the two nations.

The Israeli leader will also be seeking to improve security coordination, the newspaper reported, in the wake of a breakdown in relations with Turkey and growing instability in Syria.

Netanyahu's trip will follow on from last week's visit by Cypriot Defence Minister Demetris Eliades, who came to Israel to sign various defence deals, including one on intelligence sharing.

And it will come after Israeli President Shimon Peres visited the island in November.

The trips come in the context of increasingly warm ties between the two countries, which were cemented in December 2010 by the signing of a deal delimiting an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The deal to define their maritime border allows the neighbours to move ahead in the search for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

The deal has angered Turkey, which says the Greek side of Cyprus has no right to begin gas exploration off the island's southern coast while the country remains split.

Cyprus has been divided on ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the island and occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup seeking union with Greece.

Israeli relations with Greek Cyprus have warmed as the Jewish state's ties with Turkey have deteriorated sharply over a May 2010 raid on a convoy of ships travelling to Gaza, which killed nine Turks.

Ankara has demanded a full apology for the incident, and a end to the blockade on Gaza that the convoy was attempting to run.

But although Israel has expressed regret over the loss of life in the raid, it says its men acted in self-defence and that the blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip is both necessary and legal.

In September 2011, as the row over the incident escalated, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and froze military ties and defence trade.