Palestinian Throw Hitch Into Greek President's Visit to Israel

By Louis Economopoulos | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Athens, Greece ( - A diplomatic hitch with the Palestinian Authority and ongoing, fierce Palestinian-Israeli clashes has overshadowed and undermined the first visit by a Greek president to Israel this week.

A planned visit on Thursday by Greek President Kostis Stephanopoulos to Ramallah, where he was to meet Palestinian officials, has been cancelled after Greek officials ruled out talks with the PA in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians reportedly had demanded that Stephanopoulos meet with their representatives in East Jerusalem.

Press reports from Jerusalem said PA leaders have always sought to schedule meetings with foreign officials in East Jerusalem as a means to strengthening their claim to a city they want as the future capital of a Palestinian state.

But keeping in line with the European Union's policy on the thorny issue, Greece has avoided agreeing to such meetings. Consequently, the Greek delegation turned down the Palestinian invitation.

Despite that problem, Greek government spokesman Dimitris Reppas told reporters the incident would not effect Greek-Palestinian relations.

"We must all show particular care at this point so as not to show that we are intervening, even indirectly, in the ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinian authorities," Reppas said.

Analysts in Athens, however, did not exclude the possibility that traditionally friendly ties between Greece and the Palestinians - and the broader Arabic world - could be soured.

Because of the diplomatic hitch, Stephanopoulos will now return to Greece Wednesday evening, a day earlier than planned.

The Greek leader is scheduled to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem before leaving.

The decision to cancel the last day of the four-day tour by Stephanopoulos was a step taken by the Palestinian side because of security concerns, according to Greek press reports on Tuesday.

Ramallah, along with other PA-ruled towns in the disputed West Bank, has been the scene this week of the most serious clashes between Arabs and Israelis in four years.

Meanwhile, Stephanopoulos has been well received by Israeli government officials, including his Israeli counterpart, Ezer Weizman.

The Israeli leader emphasized that Greece and Israel were "two democratic countries with similar economies," while he expressed a conviction that the visit would further strengthen bilateral relations.

"We are on the right path," Weizman said, "to facilitate peace between Israel and its neighbors, peace which will not only contribute to the Middle East but to all the other nations in the region as well."

He expressed the hope that Greece's efforts to "come closer to its neighbor Turkey" would meet with success.

Stephanopoulos said his visit was the result of steadily improving relations between the two countries. He stressed Athens' interest in the Middle East peace process and his hopes that this would yield positive results.

"This land which we are visiting constitutes a holy place and place of reference for our two peoples, since it is the land where Greek civilisation met with the Jewish one in a fertile manner in the Hellenistic times, while in parallel it is the place of the Holy Lands, the holy shrines of Christianity and Orthodoxy," Stephanopoulos said.

Greece and Israel "share the same vision and make every effort to make the Mediterranean a region of peace and cooperation," he added.