ATHENS (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he hoped for direct negotiations with the Palestinians “in the very near future.”
His remarks, at a joint appearance with Prime Minister George Papandreou during a rare visit to Greece, coincided with efforts being made by the Quartet of Middle East power brokers to come up with a formula to persuade Palestinian leaders to join direct talks.
The sides have been negotiating indirectly under U.S. sponsorship since March, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insists he will upgrade the talks only if a clear path is set out leading to defining the borders of a future state.
Netanyahu wants the negotiations, which broke off in late 2008 when Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip to halt Palestinian rocket attacks, to resume unconditionally.
The Quartet of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia has been trying to bridge these differences to renew direct talks, by drafting a statement seen as aimed at specifying the goals for peace negotiations.
Netanyahu who has sought for months to upgrade the negotiations, seemed optimistic the Quartet efforts may succeed.
“What is becoming clear is that in the coming days we are moving toward holding negotiations, without preconditions, I hope in the very near future,” Netanyahu said.
“We are ready to go to Cairo, Washington, ready to go anywhere to get this process moving.”
Papandreou pledged Greece’s help and said: “It is necessary that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians begin immediately. This is the most useful way to achieve a viable peace.”
HIGHEST-RANKING ISRAELI TO VISIT GREECE
Netanyahu’s two-day visit to Athens makes him the highest-ranking Israeli to visit a country traditionally closer to the Arab world than the Jewish state.
He and Papandreou, whose coming together Netanyahu traces to a chance meeting at a Moscow cafe this year, agreed to boost strategic and defense ties.
“We decided to set up a mixed committee between Greece and Israel to explore and promote our cooperation systematically and strategically,” Papandreou said.
Netanyahu two-day visit to Greece come a month after a groundbreaking trip by Papandreou to Israel, and follows an Israeli raid in May on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed 9 Turkish citizens and soured the country’s ties with Turkey.
But both he and Papandreou stressed that their union was not meant as snub or to overshadow Ankara.
Greece forged full diplomatic ties with Israel later than other European countries, only in 1990, and has lately signaled a desire for closer relations and a greater role in Middle East diplomacy.
Relations between Greece and Turkey have traditionally been tense and the two countries came to the brink of war on several occasions in the late 20th century. In recent years relations have improved greatly, but old rivalries linger.
Netanyahu told officials on his flight to Athens he wanted to stem the deterioration in Israel’s strategically important ties with Muslim ally Turkey, a goal also shared by Greece.
“Certainly this (visit) doesn’t harm that, it can only help,” Netanyahu added.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Harry Papachristou, Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Alison Williams