In the face of deteriorating relations with Turkey, Israel has started to look towards the Balkans for new friends and allies. These new initiatives include shared intelligence, joint military exercises and boosting tourism.
Over the past year Israel has expanded ties with Greece and Bulgaria and upgraded its existing ties with Cyprus, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia. These states also have concerns about Turkey's turn towards Islamism and seek new opportunities in economic, technical and security cooperation with Israel.
"They realized a great danger was in store for them and the issue rose in the talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in January," a senior Israeli official stated.
Borisov and Netanyahu had three conversations with each other after the Turkish flotilla incident, intended to facilitate the release of two Bulgarian journalists who had been on board one of the ships, the official added.
Borisov proposed increasing military cooperation by letting the Israeli Air Force to use Bulgaria's bases and air space for training. The first training session is expected to be held soon.
Israel's ambassador to Bulgaria, Noah Gal-Gendler, said, "Unlike the past, Borisov decided in favor of cooperation with Israel. Immediately after his election he visited Jerusalem, the first visit of a Bulgarian prime minister for the past 18 years."
The Bulgarians hope that Israeli tourists who no longer visit Turkey will go to Bourgas and Varna on the Black Sea coast. Some 150,000 Israelis are expected to visit Bulgaria by the end of the year and Bulgaria would like to see the number grow to 250,000 by 2011.
Relations with Greece have also improved recently. In February, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou met Netanyahu at the Cafe Pushkin restaurant in Moscow.
Papandreou, who wants a larger role in the peace process, decided to change Greek relations with Israel. After the Turkish flotilla incident, Greek security forces suggested closer ties with Israel.
When Greece's economic crisis erupted, Athens got little help from the Arab states, despite decades of pro-Arab policy, according to a senior Israeli diplomat.
Israeli and Greek officials have since discussed strategic cooperation. Greece plans to attract Israeli vacationers who used to go to Turkey as well. Israeli tourism to Greece has grown by 200 percent this year and may reach 250,000 by the end of the year.