Israel and Greece seek to expand military ties

ATHENS (Reuters) - Israeli and Greek leaders discussed expanding military ties on Tuesday including sharing military know-how and holding joint war games, officials said.

Israel has been keen to expand ties with Greece as its relations with Turkey -- another strategic Mediterranean partner -- soured since an Israeli raid on a Turkish-backed aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip in May.

As he wrapped up his two-day trip to Greece, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- the highest ranking Israeli to visit the country -- said the two nations were “opening a new chapter.”

He told reporters that he and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had discussed military cooperation.

An official in Netanyahu’s entourage told Reuters these discussions “explored establishing greater cooperation between both countries’ military industries and armies.”

A Greek official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed they “talked about new forms of cooperation on defense and security issues” including the expansion of joint military exercises and sharing technological knowledge.

In a symbolic gesture, Papandreou hosted Netanyahu on a trip to an island off the Athens coast on Tuesday, setting sail on a missile boat Israel sold to Greece eight years ago.

Papandreou told a joint news conference with the Israeli leader on Monday that they were looking at expanding strategic ties. Israeli officials said a team of experts on security and trade ties would soon meet to map out further details.

Netanyahu has said he wants to mend fences with Turkey and that upgrading relations with Greece could further that goal.

Greece is Turkey’s long-standing rival in the Mediterranean. The came to the brink of war at least twice in the 20th century.

Israel sees Greece as more ready to build ties with it because it senses that Athens’ traditional Arab allies seem less opposed than in the past, due to shared fears of Iran which many in the West believe is seeking to make a nuclear bomb.

“Relations are now developing at great speed due to our common interests,” another senior Israeli official told reporters on the sidelines of the trip.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Greece, which only forged full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 1990, later than other European countries. Israel and Greece signed a defense cooperation agreement in 1994.

Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Maria Golovnina