Israel welcomes favourable EU vote amid annexation tensions

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel on Thursday welcomed the European parliament's ratification of an aviation treaty, despite criticism from leading EU members of its plans to annex swathes of the occupied West Bank.

Overnight, the parliament voted by 437 to 102 to ratify an "open skies" agreement which was signed in 2013 to give Israeli airlines and those of the 27 member states of the European Union, access to one another's airports.

A motion to postpone ratification in protest at the proposed annexation was earlier defeated by 388 votes to 278 with 20 abstentions.

A statement from the Israeli foreign ministry made no mention of the annexation issue but said ratification was "made possible by ongoing and intensive diplomatic work" by Israeli ambassadors in Europe.

Belgium, Estonia, France and Germany called in a joint statement last month for Israel not to make "any unilateral decision that would lead to the annexation of any occupied Palestinian territory".

But there seems to be lack of consensus between member states on taking a united stand against the plan.

"The final ratification of this agreement is an important expression of the relationship Israel has with the EU," the Israeli statement quoted Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi as saying.

"This is a major message that will secure the recovery of the tourism and aviation industries."

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel has imposed a near shutdown of flights in or out, dealing a heavy blow to its vital tourism and airline businesses.

Speaking during a visit to Jerusalem by his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a gradual reopening of the skies would only be sustainable if coronavirus infection rates remain under control.

Israel is so far weathering the pandemic relatively well with about 20,000 infections and just over 300 dead from its population of nine million.

But an easing of coronavirus controls in recent weeks has been accompanied by an increase in infections, prompting fears that restrictions may need to be reimposed.