Keeping an eye on Turkey, Israel pursues rapprochement with Cyprus

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades is once again expected in Israel, in a visit that underlines the growing importance of Cypriot-Israeli relations. The visit, scheduled on November 13, is his third since he became President in February 2013, and his second in 2015, five months after holding meetings with Israeli officials back in June, and four months after PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Cyprus in July. During his mandate, bilateral relations have reached an unprecedented level of cooperation, between two countries that have for long held cordial but relatively distant relations. The discovery of natural gas reserves offshore Cyprus and Israel have brought the two countries closer and reinforced bilateral cooperation. The deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey following the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, provided additional impetus for strengthening Israeli-Cypriot relations.

A shared perception of security threats and energy interests are at the heart of this rapprochement, to which we could add Greece. Joint military exercises have multiplied and coordination between the navies was strengthened, in order to deter maritime threats, particularly those associated with platform attacks. In 2013, Cyprus, Greece and Israel signed an MoU to strengthen energy cooperation and protect important infrastructure. The Memorandum also includes a joint declaration of intent to lay an undersea electric cable linking Israel, Cyprus and Greece (Crete). But despite the numerous official visits, declarations of intent, expressions of interests and MoUs, Cyprus and Israel have yet to translate their political wishes into actual projects. The two countries have been negotiating a unitization agreement for years and have yet to conclude it. According to former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies Oded Eran: “The unitization agreement between Israel and Cyprus will be signed if the internal political dispute in Cyprus is solved, and if gas from the countries can be exported to Turkey”.

Regardless if it is right or wrong, Turkey appears to be omnipresent in Cypriot-Israeli relations, much to the dismay of Cypriots.

One project in particular embodies Cypriot frustration: The now dormant plans to establish an LNG plant in Vasilikos. The amount of gas in Aphrodite did not, on its own, justify the construction of this multi-billion dollar facility. More gas needed to be committed. And despite certain positive (yet never decisive) signals, Cyprus waited in vain for Israeli gas. Israel never gave Cyprus the autonomy it badly needed to exploit its gas. Instead, Cyprus now has to grapple to develop Aphrodite. And, although settling the decades-long dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a clear objective for the Anastasiades administration, Greek Cypriots know that they would have headed to the negotiation table with a stronger hand had they ensured a certain autonomy in exploiting their resources.

Cypriot officials were never able to interpret the signals emitted by Israel. More than any other country in the region, Israel views its gas resources as a strategic commodity. Beyond their obvious economic benefits, contributing to meeting local demand, Israel hopes these resources would provoke a geopolitical change that would strengthen its position in the region. The idea is to weaken animosity towards it by creating shared interests with countries in the region. This largely explains why first export deals were negotiated with Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians (although precious few were finalized). Israel is also keeping an eye on Turkey, not only for its vast market, but also because for many years, Turkey was the only Muslim-majority country maintaining ties with Israel, breaking a near perfect Arab and Muslim boycott of Israel, and Ankara still has the potential to play that role. Cooperation between the two countries is still accorded high priority, despite ups and downs, and despite a sometime virulent rhetoric.

For Israel, a partnership with Cyprus is of utmost importance, particularly after its relations with Turkey have deteriorated (and even more so if the sour relations persist). Cyprus offers Israel a “breathing space”, in a region that is mostly hostile to the Jewish State. But, important as it is, a partnership with Cyprus does not provide Israel the strategic edge it is hoping its newfound resources would give it in this part of the neighborhood. Turkey on the other hand (and other countries in the region) can offer Israel a strategic gain that Cyprus cannot offer: A breakthrough into the Muslim world, hoping that it would contribute to control hostility towards it. As long as Israel believes there is room to improve relations with Turkey, it will not take its relations with Cyprus to a place that would threaten its relations with Turkey.

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