By Dan Williams
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Stagnant peacemaking with the Palestinians has not stopped a blossoming of Israel's relations with Balkan states focused on liberalizing their societies and economies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.
Buoyed by Greece's grounding of international activists who had tried to sail to blockaded Gaza, Netanyahu pointed to a growing group of central and east European countries close to the United States that were supporting the Israelis in U.N. and EU forums.
"We are finding new partnerships, new alliances in places where we had once invested little time, energy and resources," he told Reuters at the start of a visit to Romania and Bulgaria.
"We have a strategy, and while there is all this talk of Israel being isolated, these countries are deeply eager to develop ties. Their opinion of us is very favorable. They are taking a hard look at their interests and understand that Israel can help advance them."
Netanyahu said Balkan states saw in Israel's tensions with Arab neighbors and arch-foe Iran a reflection of their own past struggles against Soviet supremacy, domestic authoritarianism and sectarian bloodletting.
"They have lived under tyranny, so they are much more skeptical, they are much more respectful of a democracy arrayed against totalitarian forces," he said.
Many Europeans see Israel, rather than the Palestinians, as an intransigent, occupying power unwilling to stop settlement building or accept a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
But Netanyahu said he had been surprised on a visit to the Czech Republic that his hosts "did not have to be convinced" regarding Israel's peacemaking terms, though these are often questioned in many western European capitals.
"They get it. They experienced the dictatorial mind, and they understand what it means to be framed," said Netanyahu, who has long insisted that the reason peace remains elusive is the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
High on Netanyahu's agenda in Bucharest and Sofia was lobbying against the Palestinian campaign to be formally acknowledged as sovereign in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza during September's U.N. assembly.
Netanyahu said Palestinians enjoyed an "automatic majority" in the world body, but said he hoped to whittle away at such support among former Soviet satellites which backed a previous Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988.
"I wouldn't be surprised if some of them have different opinions today," he said.
Analysts say realpolitik and historical self-regard help explain the Balkan boost for Israel.
They cite a common cause in perpetuating ethnically defined statehood; an emphasis on defense and respect for U.S.-style power-projection; snubs against old rival Turkey; the quest for alternatives to Russian dominance of energy supplies and feelings of affinity among some Balkan Muslims who, like Jews, withstood genocide.
Netanyahu said relations with Russia were sound and voiced hope that ties to Turkey, almost ruptured over Israel's Gaza policies, could be mended.
One senior adviser said Ankara was "watching and noticing" Netanyahu's overtures toward other Balkan states.
The Israeli leader, a free-market champion who is quick to celebrate his country's hi-tech advances and endurance through global economic doldrums, made no secret of exploiting recent off-shore natural gas discoveries as strategic exports.
"Because we need very little of this, we intend basically to lay a pipeline or create a shipping lane. We can be a big supplier in the natural gas field," he said.
Balkan partners such as Greece have also expressed interest in defense cooperation with Israel. One diplomat from the region, who declined to be named, said Israeli know-how could help fend off a future threat from Iran, whose ballistic missiles can now reach much of southern and central Europe.
Netanyahu, who has sought economic projects with the Palestinians to buttress -- or, critics would say, in lieu of -- statehood talks, cited efforts by former Balkan foes such as Greece and Turkey to underpin rapprochement through shared civilian infrastructure.
As an example, he said his government was interested in a proposal to link Israeli ports by rail to cities in Jordan and Iraq, enhancing their commercial access to the Mediterranean.
"We should learn the good things and avoid the bad things," he said of the Balkan precedents. "Israel isn't an empire, and it's not a huge country. But it is a significant country on the world scene now, beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict."
(Editing by Paul Taylor)