Netanyahu in Baltics in search of European allies

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Lithuania on Thursday for a Baltic summit saying he hoped to deepen ties with eastern EU nations as Brussels blasted Israel’s plans for fresh settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu, who has Lithuanian roots, was greeted by the Baltic country’s foreign minister at Vilnius airport. “I want to achieve a balance in the European Union’s not always friendly relations with Israel in order to maintain fairer relations,” Netanyahu said before boarding his plane for the first-ever visit by an Israeli premier to Lithuania.

“I am doing it through contacts with blocs of European Union countries, eastern European countries, and now with Baltic countries and other countries, of course.” But EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the bloc was “strongly opposed” to Israel’s “illegal” settlement policy, calling it “an obstacle to peace.” The planned settlements “would further jeopardize the prospect of a contiguous and viable future Palestinian state,” she added in a statement on Thursday.

Netanyahu will meet the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia together in Vilnius during his visit which is set to last until Sunday. Lithuania has traditionally been one of Israel’s better friends in the EU.

The Baltic nation was behind Netanyahu’s invitation to meet with EU foreign ministers in Brussels last December, irking some EU officials. “Lithuania and the other Baltic states are probably regarded by Netanyahu as voices that could play the role of Israel’s advocates inside the EU,” said Vilnius University professor Ramunas Vilpisauskas.

Netanyahu has regularly sought sympathetic ears within the EU, particularly among countries that can serve as a counterweight to the critical treatment Israel often receives from western European nations over its policies in the Palestinian territories it occupies. Netanyahu has also been eager to convince European countries to exert more pressure on Iran after the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sanctions — something Israel had advocated.

The EU was one of the signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, which it has sought to salvage after the US withdrawal. The European countries say the deal is working as intended, keeping Israel’s arch-enemy Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons for now. Lithuania in turn is seeking to expand defense cooperation, notably in cybersecurity, and wants Israel to take a tougher stance toward Russia, which the Baltic states see as their greatest security threat.

“We need to better understand each other’s security challenges because security is indivisible,” said Deividas Matulionis, an adviser to the Lithuanian prime minister.

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