Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Gabriel Haritos on the shifting geopolitics of the Cyprus-Turkey-Israel triangle

A friend brought my attention to this intelligent analysis that nicely pulls together a lot of recent straws in the wind.

"Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel: Changing Realities and Dilemmas"

The author, Gabriel Haritos, is "a doctoral candidate in the Department of International and European Studies at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Greece and an intern at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University". From some follow-up correspondence with Haritos, I gather that he is currently in Jerusalem doing research in the Israeli national archives.  (For people who read Greek, he also has a blog.)

I once had an e-mail exchange with a former British diplomat who repeated the standard "realist" slogan, usually attributed to Palmerston, that states don't have permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Actually, those "national interests"—perceived or objective, real or alleged—aren't permanent either. They also change, for various kinds of reasons—political, ideological, and otherwise. Sometimes those reasons are partly geological, as in this case.

=> Some highlights from the Haritos piece, which is brief and worth reading in full:
Over the past year, the Cypriot government has been implementing a dramatic pro-Israeli shift in its foreign policy. Not long ago, such a pro-Israeli orientation would have been inconceivable, given that Cypriot foreign policy and public opinion have traditionally favored the Arab parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Interestingly, the newly elected President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nikos Anastassiades, does not face any domestic opposition to this change.  In the wake of Cyprus’s economic crisis, which is radically affecting the Cypriot banking system and domestic economy, and also against the background of the sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, Anastassiades and his political opponents agreed that creating strong ties with Israel on common oil and natural gas exploitation projects in the South East Mediterranean was the best political course."

A clear indication of Cyprus’s pro-Israeli regional policy occurred on February 11, 2013, when the Cypriot government signed an agreement according to which the Israeli companies Avner Oil & Gas and Delek Drilling were granted 30% of the US-based Noble Energy Oil Company's  exploration and exploitation rights on Cyprus’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone) [...] Block 12, which borders Israel’s EEZ Leviathan Block in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Cypriot Minister of Commerce Neoclis Silikiotis emphasized the political dimensions of this agreement, noting the importance of regional political cooperation with Israel.  [....]

The first President-elect of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, fashioned a distinct Cypriot foreign policy [....]  As a result of Makarios’ priorities, Cyprus became an active member of the anti-western Non-Aligned Movement and strengthened its political ties with Nasserist Egypt by Makarios would gain the support of numerous Afro-Asian and Arab states’ votes at the UN in order to change the intra-Cypriot bi-communal constitutional status and to strengthen the political role of Cyprus’s central administration.

At the same time, Cyprus was the only country in the Near and Middle East region that maintained full and formal diplomatic relations with Israel [....]"

After the Turkish invasion in 1974, Cypriot foreign policy was directed at achieving the reunification of the island, the return of the Greek-Cypriot refugees to their properties in the Turkish-occupied north and the withdrawal of Turkish troops. On the regional scene, Cypriot foreign policy continued to follow pro-Arab tendencies, still hoping to obtain broad Arab support in the UN and other international organizations.  [....]

Since 2002 Ankara has gradually adopted a new foreign policy doctrine based on the ruling AKP’s perception of the country’s historic leadership role in the Middle East, which aims to expand Turkey’s political and anti-Israel voices were multiplying amongst Turkish decision-makers.

In June 2010, Turkey used the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident to clarify its new pro-Arab regional policy objectives. It was surely not a coincidence that according to the Mavi Marmara’s itinerary, the port of Famagusta in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus was the last stop before the port of Gaza. In this way, Ankara aimed to connect the Israeli embargo on the port of Gaza, which exclusively serves a Palestinian population, with the international embargo on the Muslim support for Ankara's interests in Cyprus.

Turkey’s use of the port of Famagusta has always been a thorny issue for the Republic of Cyprus. As a result, Cypriot authorities denied the Mavi Marmara flotilla entrance into their territorial waters. This decision was the first sign of Nicosia’s new regional foreign policy. It was Turkey’s new Middle East doctrine that prompted Nicosia to re-evaluate its position in the region: shortly after the incident, Israeli-Cypriot cooperation on oil and natural gas exploitation was announced, followed by substantial steps promoting further political and diplomatic cooperation. An unprecedented military agreement was signed between the two countries on February 16, 2012, according to which Israeli military planes and vessels can use Cypriot military bases in order to protect common natural gas projects within the Cypriot and the Israeli EEZs.

[....]  Because Turkey disputes Cyprus’s maritime borders, Cypriot natural resources exploitation projects add even more disputed areas between Cyprus and Turkey, the most important of which is on Block 12 within the Cypriot EEZ, where Israel and Cyprus are already collaborating.

Israel, on the other hand, cannot disregard the fact that while its partnership with the Republic of Cyprus within the Cypriot EEZ is important for its economy in the decades to come, Turkey's geostrategic role is extremely important for its national security. Repairing and renewing ties with its geostrategic ally (Turkey) while further developing its energy partnership with Cyprus and seeking ways to develop broader regional cooperation in the natural gas sector will surely challenge Israeli diplomatic skills in the months and years ahead.
I can't help reflecting that "Israeli diplomatic skills" have been in very short supply for a while now.
In that regard, achieving the long-elusive solution to the Cyprus issue would be a boon to regional stability. In its absence, Cyprus’'s offshore energy reserves, rather than guaranteeing a prosperous future for all parties involved, are likely to provide a new focus of tensions in the always volatile Middle East.
The latter option strikes me as more likely.  But I guess we'll see.

—Jeff Weintraub