Greek Cyprus, Israel draw closer, presenting challenges for Turkey

by editor | 17th February 2012 10:56 am

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias. (Photo: EPA)
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Greek Cyprus on Thursday — the first ever visit of an Israeli PM to the island — seeking closer ties in regards to cooperation in the fields of energy and defense, which might present challenges for Turkey.
The one-day visit “was designed to strengthen the improving ties between the two nations,” according to officials from Netanyahu’s office, and the two sides will discuss cooperation in energy matters, agriculture, health and maritime research and sign a disaster relief and a search and rescue agreement. Greek Cypriot government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou told The Associated Press the visit “illustrates the great dynamic driving forward the improvement in relations between the two countries,” and Cypriot-Israeli energy cooperation is a key aspect to budding relations, but there are others, including defense.
Netanyahu’s visit follows a succession of reciprocal visits by senior officials from both countries and several low-level agreements. Israeli President Shimon Peres had talks with Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias during a key visit to the island last November, discussing gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean, a discovery that has sparked a crisis between Turkey and Greek Cyprus.

Turkey opposes exploratory drilling being conducted by US company Noble Energy off Cyprus’ south coast, saying it ignores the rights of Turkish Cypriots. Ankara sent warships last year to escort a research vessel looking for gas deposits in the area, raising the possibility of a naval confrontation.

Israel, which also conducts drilling off its coast, has strained relations with Turkey as well. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended military agreements after a UN panel, investigating a deadly May 31, 2010, raid on an international aid flotilla headed for Gaza, said in its report that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was legal.

Greek Cyprus on Wednesday accused neighboring Turkey of using “bullying behavior” in some of its harshest criticism yet of its old foe, locked in a decades-old standoff over the division of the island and recent natural gas finds.

Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis told Israeli Army Radio in an interview on the eve of the visit by Netanyahu that Turkey had held numerous and “provocative” military exercises in the eastern Mediterranean over the past few months. The island of Cyprus is split between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), recognized by Turkey, and Greek Cyprus, which represents an internationally recognized government. There are reunification talks going on.

After the Greek Cypriot drilling had begun in a southeastern offshore block, adjoining a gas field in Israeli waters reputed to be the world’s largest find of the past decade, Turkey and the KKTC signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement in September to clear the path for Turkish exploration off northern Cyprus.

Relations between Israel and Cyprus have improved considerably in the last few years, with the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations.

“There is no doubt that the loss of Turkey pushed Israel in the direction of Greece and Cyprus,” said Alon Liel, a former director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and one-time envoy to Turkey, as quoted by The Associated Press. “With Cyprus it has become more significant because of the gas.”

“They [the Turks] see Israel aiding Cyprus and in return, they will want to aid Hamas,” he said. “The Turks feel that if Israel is moving toward Cyprus they will try to strengthen Hamas” by donating money to its government.

Diplomatic sources told Today’s Zaman in regards to Netanyahu’s visit to Greek Cyprus, “Anybody is free to go anywhere.” The same sources pointed out that Israel has also been trying to establish relations with the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans where Turkey has strong ties.

Asked about comments in relation to ties between Hamas and Turkey, the same sources said Turkey supports internal reconciliation in Palestine, and “Turkey and Hamas are already close.”

Reports began to surface recently claiming Netanyahu will discuss the stationing of Israeli fighter jets at a Greek Cypriot airbase on his visit to the island. “If such reports prove to be accurate, the event has the potential to be a revolutionary strategic alliance,” wrote Dan Reznik, an intelligence analyst specializing in Israeli affairs at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.

“However, the aforementioned discussions may in fact be purely an Israeli negotiating tactic in an effort to bridge the rift between it and its former ally Turkey,” he added.

Mehmet Hasgüler, a Turkish Cypriot and an academic focusing on Cyprus, told Today’s Zaman that Israel needs Turkey more than ever as old alliances have been destroyed in the Middle East.

The rupture with Turkey and the toppling of Egypt’s longtime leader Hosni Mubarak made Israel more vulnerable in a region already hostile to the country. “Israel pretends to look for other alliances thinking that Turkey will be cornered, but this tactic will not work,” he also said. “However, Turkey should seriously evaluate the situation if Israel demands an air base from Greek Cyprus.”

Last month, two agreements were signed between Israeli and Greek Cypriot defense ministers, covering intelligence-sharing and air and sea collaboration. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Community in Cyprus announced a demonstration on Thursday afternoon in Nicosia to protest Netanyahu’s presence.

Greek Cyprus, a traditional ally of Arab countries and a strong supporter of Palestinian statehood, was considered one of Israel’s fiercest critics in Europe, but geopolitical developments have brought the two closer together.

In 2008, bilateral trade reached nearly 600 million euros, making Israel the fifth largest exporter to Cyprus. According to the Cyprus Mail, The Israel Project (TIP), a non-profit organization, reported that bilateral trade between the two climbed to 910 million euros in 2011.

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