Cyprus and Israel: Perennial wallflowers share a dance

Cyprus and Israel: Perennial wallflowers share a dance

Binyamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Cypriot President Demetris Christofias in Nicosia on February 16 – the first for any Israeli Prime Minister – was not only historic, but likely strategically important for the futures of both Mediterranean countries, which are finding in recent years an increasing number of shared interests.

Once, such a visit would have been difficult to imagine. While Netanyahu said during his visit that warming ties between Israel and Cyprus was a reflection of the “natural relationship” between the two countries, Cyprus and Israel have never been as close as they are now.

For Israel, the key reason for distancing itself from Cyprus in the past was to avoid antagonising Turkey, which was always strategically a more powerful and important ally in the region. Turkey and Cyprus have a bitter history, and Turkey has occupied the northern part of Cyprus since 1974.

From the perspective of Nicosia, the country’s relations with Lebanon, Syria and other Middle Eastern states had always taken precedence over Israel. In addition, like it’s cultural blood brother Greece, Cyprus had been a strong supporter of Palestinian nationalism. It did not send an envoy to Tel Aviv until the Palestinians had inked a deal with Israel at Oslo. Last, but certainly not least, Cyprus found Israel’s bonds with Turkey difficult to stomach.

Two major recent shifts have occurred to bring these two countries together. The first was the rift that has opened between Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan’s AKP party and Israel, which removed the largest obstacle to a Cypriot-Israeli détente. The second was the discovery of very large quantities of natural gas in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) offshore both Cyprus and Israel, which created the main impetus for the meeting.

Simon Henderson at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a paper published on February 15 on the subject, explains:

“The discovery of huge offshore gas fields has coincided with a downturn in relations between Israel and Ankara, marked by sharp diplomatic exchanges and the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish activists on a protest ship bound for Gaza died in a confrontation with Israeli naval commandos. In December of that year, Israel and Cyprus signed a maritime border agreement after the appropriately named Leviathan field was discovered in Israel’s EEZ. A year later, Cyprus announced that gas had been found in commercial quantities in Block 12 of its own EEZ, close to the Leviathan field.
The new Cypriot field, estimated to contain 7-8 trillion cubic feet of gas, could make the island self-sufficient in energy for decades while also allowing sizeable exports to Europe. And Israel’s Leviathan field is estimated to hold 17 trillion cubic feet, all of which is intended for export because the smaller Tamar field (8 trillion cubic feet) is sufficient for domestic consumption. In fact, Tamar’s reserves are deemed large enough to supply Israeli demand for decades, even allowing for much-expanded use of gas. (Scheduled to be onstream by 2013, Tamar’s gas is urgently needed because of disruptions to supplies from Egypt.)”

For the Cypriots, who are not in quite the same economically dire straits as the Greeks but could certainly use a shot in the arm, the prospect of becoming energy exporters is an appealing prospect.

Yet the situation is not so simple.

As Henderson continues:

“Nicosia’s gas development efforts fall under the shadow of Turkey, which argues that Cyprus is entitled to only 12 nautical miles of territorial waters rather than the usual maximum 200 nautical miles allowed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. From Ankara’s unique perspective, the newly discovered Block 12 field, lying south of Cyprus, is actually in Turkish waters.”

The intimidation from the north is significant. Last year, Ankara sent warships to escort a research vessel looking for gas deposits in the area, raising the possibility of a naval confrontation.

In addition – while not widely publicised – Turkish and Greek warplanes engaged in mock dogfights in Cypriot airspace on the day of Netanyahu’s visit, the Cyprus Mail reported. Turkey’s expression of displeasure over the meeting could not have been made any clearer.

Therefore, linking their energy interests with that of Israel may offer militarily weak Cyprus an umbrella of protection for their gas fields that they could not manage on their own. There is even talk of the Israeli Air Force getting permission to station jets at the Andreas Papandreou airbase in Paphos.

So, energy security is part of the reason why a partnership with Jerusalem is looking ever more enticing to Nicosia, but not the only reason.

There are also the practical aspects of the energy deal. Houston-based Noble Energy is a major player in both the Israeli and Cypriot drilling operations. By combining infrastructure, Israel and Cyprus can lower costs and maximise export opportunities. Cyprus could offer Israel better access to European markets, while Israel could potentially build a LPG processing plant on the Red Sea, offering Cyprus access to the lucrative Asian markets.

The latter scenario appears increasingly likely. Despite the country’s proximity to Europe, Cyprus Mail columnist Stefanos Evripidou has identified several reasons why Cyprus may prefer to sell to Asia.

“Any project to exploit and sell gas to Europe will inevitably be considered in competition with Turkey’s efforts to establish itself as a crucial energy transit point. Which brings us to another key power in the region, Russia.
Neither Cyprus nor Israel really wants to step on Russia’s toes, with its imprints all over energy supply lines to Europe. In Cyprus’ case, there has been much speculation over what it is willing to give in return for Russia’s continued support of the island state, both diplomatically and financially. If Cyprus chooses not to go the Asian route, what incentives will it give Russia to support its sovereign right to exploit resources?”

Cypriots have generally welcomed the new arrangement with Israel,  but is Cyprus looking to make Israel its new “BFF”? Not likely. What the government in Nicosia is trying to do, according to Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, is market Cyprus as a “neutral hub” which can partner with any country in the eastern Mediterranean to suit mutual interests, the Famagusta Gazette reported:

“Relations between the Republic of Cyprus and Israel should however not be perceived as competitive to relations with the Arab world, the Minister went on, explaining that Cyprus’ policy to the question of Palestine remains firm.
Speaking on the Cyprus problem, the Minister said that the country’s small size and the asymmetrical threats it receives dictate that Cyprus requires all the support it can get, both from Israel and its Arab neighbours.”

That would be fine with Israel, which has not abandoned its hope of rehabilitating its relationship with Turkey and would be content to couch its newfound relationship with Cyprus in pragmatic terms, as The Jerusalem Post‘s Herb Keinon analysed:

“[During the Christofias-Netanyahu meeting], while the way Christofias spoke about Turkey left no question that he indeed views Turkey, which has occupied part of the island since 1974, as an enemy, Netanyahu diplomatically chose not to mention Ankara – keeping the door ajar for the hope of some eventual reconciliation.”

For now, the match is a good fit. Even if its improving relationship with Cyprus is “just business”, it serves the interests of Jerusalem well.

Ahron Shapiro