By Andrestinos Papadopoulos, Ambassador ah.
The visit of Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides and Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, George Lakkotripis to Israel was preparatory to President Nicos Anastasiades’ visit scheduled for May 6-7. It took place, however, within a particular climate, characterised by two important events affecting Cyprus-Israeli relations – the attempted rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, and Ankara’s threats aimed at hindering the exploitation of the natural gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
As a matter of fact, the apology offered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Tayip Erdogan concerning the killing of nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara, after pressure by President Barack Obama and taking into account possible negative developments in Syria and Iran, created fears that it might adversely influence Cyprus-Israeli relations. These fears were dispelled, at the highest level, during a telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Anastasiades on April 4, at the initiative of the Israeli prime minister. It was confirmed that Cyprus-Israeli relations will not be affected by this development. The same stand was confirmed to Minister Kasoulides who understood that there was a genuine will on the part of Israel to strengthen relations.
It is of interest, therefore, to see how real the perceptions of a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel are. The question to be answered is whether Turkey will change policy. At this moment her foreign policy is driving her away from the West and aims at playing a leading role within the Muslim world. In order to achieve this, she should attack Israel. Already Erdogan has announced that he will visit Gaza to show support for Hamas. One can imagine Israel’s reaction when he arrives in Gaza as a liberator of the Palestinians. An Israeli commentator characterised this decision as a slap in the face for Israel, the USA and Mahmoud Abbas. Many have expressed doubts over the sincerity of Erdogan’s intentions. The Cypriot delegation sensed Israel’s displeasure towards Turkey’s protagonistic role in the Muslim world, a role also sought by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
On the question of energy, Turkey is playing tough geopolitical poker as she aims to secure the management of hydrocarbons in the region, through the participation of Turkish Cypriots in the exploitation of the Cypriot EEZ, testing with her threats the reaction of countries and companies. Cyprus and Israel are facing this situation through their cooperation in the field of energy, whose character is not only economic, but mainly strategic. Cooperation is needed to exploit and transport natural gas to Europe as well as the creation of a terminal in Cyprus. It is only natural for Israel to prefer having a second terminal outside Israel, for obvious reasons, and consider Cyprus and Greece as its natural bridge to Europe for transporting its natural gas.
It would have been naïve to believe that Israel wants to strengthen the role of Turkey when transporting natural gas to Europe through Cyprus and Greece strengthens its own position through its contribution to Europe’s independence from Russia and a future Islamic Turkey. During the discussion of these matters the presence of Minister Kasoulides gave a political dimension to the whole approach.
The cooperation in the field of energy also raised the question of cooperation in other fields such as health, technology, research, agriculture, water development, tourism, and so forth. On all these issues, there was a genuine will for cooperation on a permanent basis with the possibility of including Greece as well.
The question of cooperation between Cyprus and Israel enjoys widespread acceptance and the following simple fact testifies to its importance. Due to the presence in Israel of the American Secretary of State, John Kerry all the meetings of Premier Netanyahu were cancelled. However, as soon as he was free he accepted the Cypriot delegation immediately. The one who rendered properly the deeper meaning of the special relationship between Cyprus and Israel is the wise and seasoned president of Israel, Shimon Peres, who projected the common fate of the two countries by saying that if Cyprus is geographically an island, then Israel is politically an island.
The visit of Minister Kasoulides not only prepared the ground of the forthcoming visit of President Anastasiades to Israel, but also reconfirmed the commitment of the two new governments to strengthen their cooperation.
If in January 2012 Nicos Anastasiades, when as DISY leader visited Israel, was received as ambassador of closer cooperation between Cyprus and Israel and a staunch supporter of a consistent and trustworthy pro-Israeli policy, now, his visit to Israel in May as president of the Republic will usher in a new era of a deeper geopolitical cooperation between the two countries with a view to promoting peace and stability in the wider region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Dr Andrestinos Papadopoulos is a former ambassador of Cyprus.