Israel places a high priority on maintaining and expanding relations with nations around the world. In July 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the first official visit to Africa by a sitting Israeli prime minister in 29 years. And while Africa has figured prominently in recent Israeli diplomatic activity, the Jewish state has also made important advances with a number of Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern European states, including Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and Montenegro.
Greece and Cyprus
Israel has sought to build closer relations with Greece and Cyprus for many years. In the last five years, the three countries have dramatically enhanced their defense cooperation. The United States, Israel and Greece established a joint annual naval exercise in 2011 termed “Noble Dina.” Soon thereafter, in April 2014, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) opened a new military attaché office in Greece, whose responsibilities also include defense cooperation with Cyprus. In April 2016, the U.S., Israel and Greece held joint air drills over the Mediterranean.
In addition, Israel, Greece and Cyprus are exploring energy cooperation. In August 2013, the three countries signed an historic memorandum of understanding that laid the groundwork for the “EuroAsia” Interconnector, a submarine high-voltage electric cable that will link Israeli, Greek and Cypriot power grids.
Moreover, the 2009 and 2010 discoveries of large natural gas reserves off the shores of Israel and Cyprus may enable cooperation in the export of natural gas. In January 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades met to cement the new trilateral partnership, the cornerstone of which is Israel’s possible future export of natural gas through the planned “EastMed” pipeline. “We discussed a number of opportunities for cooperation in very practical ways,” said Netanyahu during the meeting. “The first one is gas. We've been blessed…with natural gas in the sea.”
As Israel and Turkey have begun a reconciliation process this year, Israel’s government has sought to assure Greece and Cyprus that it fully intends to further deepen relations with them. The June 2016 reconciliation agreement between Turkey and Israel did cause concern in Cyprus, but Prime Minister Netanyahu allayed the fears of his Cypriot counterpart by assuring him that the resumption of Turkish-Israeli ties in no way affects the relations the Jewish state has forged with Cyprus.
Romania and Bulgaria
In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria became the newest members of the EU. Both countries have relationships with Israel that are deeply rooted in history: Romania prides itself as being the only Soviet bloc country that did not cut off ties with the Jewish state following the 1967 Six-Day War, while Bulgarians withstood Nazi pressure in World War II and saved the country’s Jewish population. “Forty eight thousand [Bulgarian] Jews survived the Holocaust,” noted President Reuven Rivlin in an official state visit to Bulgaria in July 2016, “thanks to the heroism of the Bulgarians, and their stance against the Nazis."
Today, Israel cooperates with both nations in a variety of areas, including defense, emergency response, security and Holocaust remembrance.
In 2004, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) began joint training exercises with its Romanian counterpart, and in 2006, Israel and Romania signed an accord to allow Israel to deploy fighter jets in Romania. Bulgaria was one of the first countries to send aid to Israel during the 2010 Carmel Forest Fire, sending 92 firefighters. And following the 2012 terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, Jerusalem and Sofia signed a variety of agreements to boost security cooperation.
Various student exchange programs have taken hold between Israel and Romania vis-à-vis education and Holocaust remembrance. In 2015, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis outlawed Holocaust denial and in March 2016, coinciding with President Iohannis’s first official state visit to Israel, Romania assumed the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. “Romania considers this role a responsibility and an honor, and it is my hope we play a central role in our region in the commemoration of the Holocaust…” said President Iohannis. “I am greatly optimistic toward the future cooperation between our countries..."
Montenegro declared independence from Serbia on June 3, 2006, and established formal diplomatic relations with Israel the following month. Although not yet in the EU—discussions are ongoing— Montenegro is poised to be the newest member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 2011, the Israeli Foreign Ministry hosted a conference with the Montenegrin Foreign Minister exploring business and cultural opportunities to bring the two countries closer together. In 2014, Montenegro cosponsored the 2014 UNESCO exhibition “People, Book, Land: The 3,500 year relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land.” To honor Montenegro’s recognition of the Jewish ties to the Land of Israel, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic received a certificate of appreciation from the Israeli Knesset in May 2016.
Currently, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is supporting the residency of two female Israeli artists—one Jewish and one Israeli Arab—in Montenegro at the innovative Dukley European Art Community (DEAC), an organization which also partners with the U.S. State Department to host American artists. And at a July 2016 reception marking 10 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Montenegro, Israir Airlines Chief Executive Officer Uri Sirkis announced that flights will be established between Tel Aviv, Tivat and Podgorica (Montenegro’s capital). Officials expect approximately 40,000 Israeli tourists will travel annually to the Adriatic country.
While Israel continues to face diplomatic challenges emanating from Europe, it has also made important strides in the region and taken advantage of meaningful opportunities. And its efforts are sure to strengthen its economic and diplomatic standing in the world.
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