Cyprus president postpones Israel visit over virus


Nicosia (AFP)

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades has postponed a planned visit to Jerusalem next Tuesday because of concerns over the worsening coronavirus situation in Israel, officials said.

Anastasiades had been due to hold high-level discussions on energy, tourism and defence but both sides agreed to postpone them until a later date.

Cyprus government spokesman Kyriacos Koushos said Anastasiades spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday and they agreed to reschedule in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"During the discussion, it was agreed that in view of the developments regarding the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, it is appropriate, under the circumstances, to postpone the visit of the president to Israel on June 23," Koushos said in a written statement.

"It was further agreed, as soon as conditions allow, to set a new date for the visit to Israel as soon as possible."

Anastasiades would have been just the second foreign leader to visit since the coronavirus prompted Israel to close its borders in early March.

It would have also been the Cypriot leader’s first foreign trip since the outbreak in March.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his ministers visited Israel earlier this week to discuss the same issues, including the planned EastMed gas pipeline.

During Mitsotakis's visit, Netanyahu said Israel was planning to reopen its borders to tourism with Greece and Cyprus starting August 1.

Israelis had already begun to return to Cyprus earlier this month, becoming the first tourists to visit the island as it reopened its airports on June 9 to countries with relatively low infection rates.

However, on June 11, Cyprus relegated Israel from its low risk category, meaning that Israelis wishing to visit will need to carry a special certificate of health to prove they are COVID-19 negative.

Israel in May saw the number of new daily coronavirus cases drop to only a few dozen but has since seen a spike in COVID-19 infections with close to 200 new cases each day.

On Thursday, it passed 20,000 virus cases. Of those, 303 have died.

Cyprus has tallied a total of 985 cases and 19 deaths and is looking to jump-start its battered tourism sector.

In recent years, Israelis have made up the third largest group of tourists to Cyprus after Britain and Russia, two countries considered high-risk whose holidaymakers remain barred.

Israel's already warm ties with Cyprus got a boost in January when they signed a deal with Greece for a huge pipeline project to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, despite Turkish hostility to the deal.

The 2,000-kilometre (1,250 miles) EastMed pipeline will be able to carry between nine and 12 billion cubic metres of gas a year from offshore reserves held by Israel and Cyprus to Greece, and then on to Italy and other southern and southeastern European countries.