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Greek-Israel defence deal is latest evidence of the blossoming Eastmed alliance

Apr 30, 2021 | Oved Lobel

Thing

In the latest evolution of the ever-deepening eastern Mediterranean alliance, Israel and Greece signed their largest-ever defence deal on April 18, right on the back of a quadrilateral meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the UAE, Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

The agreement includes a US$1.65 billion 22-year contract for Israel’s Elbit Systems to build and operate a training centre for the Greek air force, which will be modelled on Israel’s own pilot training and equipped with 10 M-346 training aircraft. In addition, Elbit will be providing training, simulators and logistical support as well as kits to upgrade and operate Greece’s T-6 aircraft.

As AIJAC has previously explained, an overlapping network of disparate energy and security alliances and partnerships in the region has begun to coalesce since 2020. This included a Cyprus-Greece-Egypt trilateral energy and security partnership established in 2014;  a similar Greece-Cyprus-UAE forum established in 2019; a military alliance consisting of France, Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Egypt announced in mid-2020; and, most significantly, the Israel-Greece-Cyprus energy alliance, which evolved in late 2017 into a full-blown military partnership.

In January 2020, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was officially inaugurated in Egypt, tying all of these elements together. As we wrote at the time:

Bringing all of these elements together is the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), established officially in Cairo in January 2020. The culmination of major gas discoveries within the EEZs of Israel, Cyprus and Egypt over the past decade and consequent energy partnerships, the EMGF is meant to serve as a regional forum for energy discussions and policy coordination among all the regional states, except Turkey.

France has applied to join as a full member, with the US participating as a permanent observer. The ultimate plan is to build a pipeline from Israel to Cyprus to transport gas to Europe, although the economic viability of this EastMed pipeline is uncertain.

Since then, in a very short span of time, the energy and security links have deepened significantly. The UAE joined the EMGF as an observer, while Israel, Greece and Cyprus have begun work on  the 2,000 megawatt Euro-Asia interconnector, the largest undersea cable in the world, which will link the electricity grids of all three countries and finally connect Cyprus to Europe.

Among the most important developments is the addition of Saudi Arabia to this burgeoning alliance. In February 2021, Saudi Arabia participated in a forum in Greece alongside France, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Cyprus. In March, Saudi Arabia sent fighter aircraft and support personnel to Greece to participate in joint military exercises, while, since early 2020, Greece has promised to send Patriot air defence systems and over 100 personnel to defend Saudi Arabian energy infrastructure from the constant missile and drone strikes by Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Yemen. This deal was reportedly formalised and came to fruition in April, when Saudi Arabia and Greece signed a defence cooperation agreement.

Looking on in dismay at these developments is Turkey and its erratic, ultranationalist, Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Through his rhetoric and actions in the Middle East, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan has managed to terrify every country in the region into banding together in order to push back against and isolate Turkey, locking Ankara out of the deepening energy partnerships and seeking to deter Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive military forays designed to undermine and reshape the regional order.

Erdogan’s response has been to try to divide the alliance through a two-track effort:  attempting to normalise relations with everyone except Greece and Cyprus, while seeking to isolate those two countries and to formalise the division of Cyprus, the weakest link in the broadening alliance, into two states. As we wrote in March:

The fact that Cyprus, hitherto the only EU member state not connected to Europe’s energy grid, could be fully integrated by 2025 is an explosive problem for Turkey, which has kept the Island divided and occupied since the 1970s, when it established the militarised puppet colony of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Under the guise of pushing for rights for this puppet state, Turkey has set about trying to sabotage every endeavour of which Cyprus is a part. Recently, Turkey decided to exacerbate tensions yet again by calling for a ‘two-state solution’ to the Cyprus issue, in contravention of universally supported reunification talks, and reportedly puppeteered the election of a presidential candidate in the TRNC more directly under the control of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There is no doubt Turkey will continue using the TRNC as an irritant to undermine the Israel-Greece-Cyprus relationship, normalisation feelers notwithstanding.

In terms of normalisation, the first target was Israel, which Turkey attempted to woo. Or at least, Ankara gave the impression of wooing Israel via leaks and shocking offers to divide the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Israel at the expense of every other country  – presumably in order to increase fears among Israel’s allies that Jerusalem could be peeled away from the Eastmed alliance.

Having thus far failed in its normalisation propaganda blitz targeting Israel in order to divide the alliance, Turkey is now repeating the precise same outreach process to Egypt, presumably for the same reasons. Reports claim Turkey is close to normalising relations with both Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia.

Yet Egypt allegedly shut down normalisation talks earlier this month, while Saudi Arabia is not sending positive signals and is actively enforcing a devastating boycott of Turkish exports enacted as a response to Turkey’s attempts to prosecute the Saudi agents that allegedly murdered journalist  Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018. Turkey recently reiterated that it would continue the prosecution.

There are many reasons to doubt that normalisation is in the offing with either of these countries or Israel – as Seth Frantzman has pointed out, talk of normalisation is a unilateral Turkish propaganda campaign. Yet even if superficial announcements of normalisation come to pass, it is unclear how that would impact the fundamental conflicts that exist between these countries and Turkey in every sphere of international relations, from the political and ideological to energy and security.

Furthermore, Erdogan seems incapable of maintaining genuine normalisation with anyone: every irritant in every relationship, from the S-400 to Hamas to Khashoggi, is celebrated by Erdogan, who doubles down on these policies to instrumentalise tensions with regional neighbours for domestic political purposes.

It is still possible that Erdogan’s disingenuous outreach may pay off, but even if it does, it is unlikely to break the overlapping system of alliances that have been forming to contain him.

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