Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel's relationship with Greece, Cyprus and its implications for Turkey

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For decades Israel had no significant natural resources - but its recent gas finds in the Mediterranean have made it an energy superpower. This in turn seems to be providing the Jewish state with new opportunities for diplomatic partnerships that will bring both economic and strategic benefits.

Israel now has to decide what to do with its large natural gas reserves, how to export them and to whom. It has three main options - export gas to Egypt, export gas to Turkey, or extend a gas pipeline to Cyprus and then to Greece. Unless new gas fields are found, Israel may have to choose between only two of those options, with the Cyprus/Greece option being the most expensive at around US$15 billion to develop, compared with US$2 billion to export to Turkey.

Perhaps partly as a result, all these nations - Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece have been courting warmer relations with Israel.

Last week the focus was on Israel's blossoming relationship with Greece and Cyprus, as Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Israel, Israel's Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon visited Greece, and Prime Minister Netanyahu joined Greece's Prime Minister and Cyprus' President Nicos Anastasiades at a three-way summit in the Cyprus capital Nicosia to discuss energy, tourism, research and technology, environment, water, migration and fighting terror. At the summit, the leaders also decided to form a trilateral committee to study plans to build a gas pipeline between Israel and Cyprus and on to Greece for gas exports to Europe. They also discussed plans for an underwater cable to connect the electricity grids of the three countries. Netanyahu described the summit as "historic" and it appears to have signalled an emerging alliance of these three east Mediterranean nations. Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

"We're living through a great turbulent passage in history, in modern times, and we face unprecedented challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities to advance our common goals. When I say our common goals, first I have to say that we have common values. We are three democracies in the Eastern Mediterranean. There are not too many around here. But we share the ideas of pluralism, diversity, choice, debate - democracies. And that forms an immediate bond of friendship.

But I think there is an even wider circle of states in the region that seek what we seek in terms of common interests: stability, security, prosperity and peace. These are momentous goals, and by working together we can advance, we can advance them more effectively than by working separately."

While such an alliance appears like a natural fit given their shared history and democratic values, the warming ties are surprising given that until very recently Greece adopted a very critical approach towards Israel. Further, the current Greek government is led by the far-left Syriza party. Yet Greece has continued to upgrade its relations with Israel. Common interests with Greece extend beyond gas supplies and already include defence cooperation. Since 2014 an Israel Defence Forces attache has been stationed in Athens with responsibility for Cyprus as well, and there have also been frequent joint air force and navy manoeuvres.

Greece has also recently supported Israel in international fora, especially when it criticised the European Union's decision to label settlement goods from the West Bank. Conversely, Greece's Parliament has voted to recognise a Palestinian state.

The new alliance may also hold strategic benefits to counterbalance Turkey. Greece and Cyprus have a cautious view of Turkey - not least because since 1974 Cyprus has been partially under Turkish occupation. Israel's relationship with Greece began to improve around the same time that Turkey and Israel had a significant falling out over the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when an Israeli naval interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla attempting to subvert Israel's legal blockade of the Strip was met with armed violence and led to the deaths of 10 Turkish citizens. Meanwhile, Israel and Cyprus have developed close military ties in recent years, a process which began under Communist President Demetris Christofias and continued under the conservative President Anastasiades.

However, Israel insists that its relationship with Greece and Cyprus is not about Turkey.

At the end of the Nicosia summit, the leaders issued a joint statement that included the following statement:

"Our partnership is not exclusive in design or nature, and we are ready to welcome other like-minded actors to join our efforts to promote coordination and cooperation, as well as regional peace and stability," which implied that Turkey could join the group.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said after that meeting:

"Our cooperation with Greece and Cyprus stands on its own... It does not depend on our efforts to normalize our relations with Turkey. We are trying to do this. I do not know if we will succeed but I think that we will continue our efforts to do so. We must ensure that Israel's interests are upheld. Turkey and Israel have had excellent relations in previous years. We did not want to see them deteriorate and we did not cause this deterioration in relations. We will welcome any change in policy."

Meanwhile, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are making very positive statements about Israel in an effort to seek rapprochement, perhaps in part due to its concern it could miss out on Israel's gas finds.

In December, AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik said that Israel and its people are friends of Turkey, while President Erdogan said to a group of journalists: "Israel needs a country like Turkey in the region. We need to accept that we also need Israel. This is a reality of the region." The comments have reportedly surprised and angered AKP supporters.

Such comments stand in contrast to Turkey's angry rhetoric towards Israel in recent years - and antisemitic statements from promininent ruling party officials (see here and here, for instance) - as the AKP government pursued a more Islamist agenda and supported Islamist terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip and acquiesced to its presence in Turkey.

Israel has also taken steps to mend its relationship with Turkey - in 2013 it apologised to Turkey for the deaths that occurred in the Mavi Marmara incitement, and in 2015 Israel agreed to pay compensation to the relatives of those killed during the raid on the flotilla. The reconciliation has been encouraged by the US, with US Vice President Joe Biden speaking to Netanyahu about it on January 29.

Despite concern as to whether Turkey's warmth towards Israel is sincere, the nations do share important economic and strategic interests. Economically, both countries have important trade routes that help each other. For Turkey, Israel is an important trade route through its Haifa port for the export of Turkish goods to the south that are unable be exported via Syria. For Israel, Turkey can be a trade route for exporting Israeli goods to European markets. Even as the relationship soured, last year trade between the two countries was around US$5 billion and trucks carrying Turkish goods continued to cross Israeli territory to export across the Middle East when access to Syria was cut off.

Strategically, both nations are concerned by Iran's ambitions of regional hegemony, especially now that Iran will receive billions from sanctions relief following the implementation of last July's nuclear deal. Turkey and Israel are also both worried by Iran's presence in Syria. Turkey sees itself as part of a "Sunni" bloc that is against the Iranian backed Assad regime in Syria, while Israel is concerned that Iran could create a front on its northern Syrian border.

Nevertheless, Turkey also has its own interests in Syria that concern Israel. Israel's Defence Minister Ya'alon recently accused Turkey of buying ISIS oil, and many analysts believe that until recently Turkey was turning a blind eye to ISIS activity on its border, which enabled the terror group to grow. Turkey is also fighting Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria, concerned by their calls for independence. Israel has expressed an interest in strengthening relations with the Kurds, and top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, have backed Kurdish independence.

Meanwhile, progress has been made in the private sector. On January 31, Israeli and Turkish energy firms signed an agreement to sell US$1.3 billion worth of gas to Edeltech. Edeltech and Zorlu Enerji, a Turkish energy conglomerate, will employ the gas to operate two new energy plants being established in southern Israel. Both plants will provide energy to the industrial sector.

Israel's gas finds have opened the door to incredible opportunities both economic and diplomatic. Israel needs to take advantage of these opportunities and make effective strategic decisions - which means hopefully from here on out minimising the red tape and political infighting that have so far hampered progress in developing the gas fields.

Sharyn Mittelman

 

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