For Israel, a Balkan bloom despite Palestine chill


Reuters
Date: 7/10/2011

By Dan Williams | Reuters – Sun, Jul 10, 2011

BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Stagnant peacemaking with the Palestinians has not stopped a blossoming of Israel's relations with Balkan states focused on liberalizing their societies and economies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday.

Buoyed by Greece's grounding of international activists who tried to sail to blockaded Gaza, Netanyahu noted that a growing group of central and east European countries on pro–American tacks have been shoring up Israel in U.N. and EU forums.

"We are finding new partnerships, new alliances in places where we had once invested little time, energy and resources," he told Reuters at the start of a visit to Romania and Bulgaria.

"We have a strategy, and while there is all this talk of Israel being isolated, these countries are deeply eager to develop ties. Their opinion of us is very favorable. They are taking a hard look at their interests and understand that Israel can help advance them."

Balkan states find in Israel's tensions with Arab neighbors and arch–foe Iran a reflection of their own past struggles against Soviet supremacy, domestic authoritarianism and sectarian bloodletting, Netanyahu said.

"They have lived under tyranny, so they are much more skeptical, they are much more respectful of a democracy arrayed against totalitarian forces."

Many Europeans put the peace onus on Israel, rather than the Palestinians, seeing it as the occupying power unwilling to stop settlement–building and make way for Palestinian independence.

But Netanyahu said he had been surprised on a visit to the Czech Republic that his hosts "did not have to be convinced" regarding Israel's terms for a negotiated accord.

"They get it. They experecognizehe dictatorial mind, and they understand what it means to be framed," said Netanyahu, who has long insisted peace remains elusive because the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

High on Netanyahu's agenda in Bucharest and Sofia was lobbying against the Palestinian campaign to sidestep the stand–off with Israel by being formally acknowledged as having sovereign rights on all of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza during September's U.N. general assembly.

COMMON CAUSE

Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc appeared to oblige his guest, telling a joint press conference that he opposed "unilateral solutions" to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Soviet satellites backed a previous Palestinian declaration of independence, in 1988. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of them have different opinions today," Netanyahu said.

Reorientation toward the West is among explanations analysts offer for the Balkan boost for Israel.

Others include the common cause of ethnically defined statehood and respect for U.S.–style power projection; snubs against old rival Turkey; the quest for alternatives to Russian–dominated energy supplies; and feelings of affinity among some Balkan Muslims who, like Jews, withstood genocide.

Netanyahu said his government's relations with Russia were sound and voiced hope that ties to Turkey, almost ruptured over Israel's Gaza policies, could be mended.

One senior adviser said Ankara was "watching and noticing "Netanyahu's overtures toward other Balkan states.

The Israeli leader, a free–market champion who is quick to celebrate his country's hi–tech advances and endurance through global economic doldrums, made no secret of wanting to exploit recent off–shore natural gas discoveries as strategic exports.

"Because we need very little of this, we intend basically to lay a pipeline or create a shipping lane. We can be a big supplier in the natural gas field," he said.

Balkan partners such as Greece have also expressed interest in defense cooperation with Israel. One diplomat from the region, who declined to be named, said Israeli know–how could help fend off a future threat from Iran, whose ballistic missiles can now reach much of southern and central Europe.

Netanyahu saw a possible lesson for Israel in the efforts of former Balkan foes like Greece and Turkey to underpin rapprochement through shared civilian infrastructure.

His government has encouraged economic growth and cooperation in West Bank areas where Palestinian have limited self–rule. Israel is interested, he said, in a proposal to link its ports by rail to cities in Jordan and Iraq, enhancing the Arab countries' commercial access to the Mediterranean sea.

"We should learn the good things and avoid the bad things," he said of the Balkan precedents. "Israel isn't an empire, and it's not a huge country. But it is a significant country on the world scene now, beyond the Arab–Israeli conflict."

(Editing by Paul Taylor)


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