A moment before the referendum votes in France and Holland on the European constitution, and two minutes before the European Union enters one of the largest crises in its history following the anticipated defeat of the Yes camp, the foreign minister of Cyprus arrived in Israel on an official visit.
According to one of the assessments in Jerusalem, the key to understanding the timing of George Iacovou's visit can be found in the visit of his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, in January, and in the visit this month by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The goal is to not abandon the Middle Eastern arena to the Turkish rival, and to plant the Cypriot flag in the Holy Land in order to block the expansion of Ankara's sphere of influence, or at least to balance it. In a conversation with Iacovou, he claims his visit was scheduled long before the visits of the Turkish leaders, and that it was intended to further strengthen the increasingly close relations between Israel and Cyprus.
For those with long memories, Cyprus stirs an association with the transit camps of Jewish immigrants [ma'apilim] to Palestine, expelled by the British. Those with shorter memories are likely to harbor an image of Cyprus as aloof, "nonaligned" and pro-Arab. However, in recent years, relations between the two countries have again grown closer. Many Israelis have switched their Swiss accounts for Cypriot banks. Some Israelis are focusing on real estate investments, while others are content with sunning themselves on the island's beaches. Iacovou provides a surprising explanation for this rapprochement: The entry of Cyprus into the EU in May 2004 is a defining event behind what he describes as "our excellent relations." The country's new European uniform has obliged it to gradually adopt the European foreign policy and take a new stand - less pro-Arab and more balanced.
This balance is also what enabled Iacovou to adopt the words of former Greek foreign minister George Papandreou, who visited last week as part of the Socialist International event, and said that Cyprus could play a significant role in the Middle East after joining the EU. Cyprus is Europe's eastern gate to the Middle East, and the Middle East's western gate to Europe. "They expect us to provide information, to bring ideas [for resolving the conflict]," says Iacovou. He accepts the American preeminence in the region. He recognizes that the EU plays "second fiddle" in the Quartet, and knows the limitations of his tiny country, which he describes as "a mouse on the trail of elephants." Nonetheless, he expresses interest in Cyprus' involvement "in the event that the expectations for implementing the road map - and there are many who have questions about this - are not realized."
In certain circumstances, Iacovou's modest aspiration could interest Israel: The closest European neighbor is familiar with the region, is developing good relations with both sides, is too small to pose a threat and does not seem to have any hidden agenda. Cyprus could perhaps have become the EU's envoy to the Middle East.
However, this would ignore one "minor problem:" Cyprus is itself a conflicted country that is unable to resolve its long dispute. Moreover, in the eyes of the international community, since rejecting the Annan Plan for reuniting the island in an April 2004 referendum, the Greek side - that is, the Cypriot government, the only one recognized by the international community - is seen as the "bad boy" in the conflict. Its punishment is expressed in the beginning of normalization of relations with the new, moderate and pro-European leadership of the Turkish side, headed by Mehmet Ali Talat.
Iacovou, of course, does not accept this analysis. He regards Talat as a puppet of Ankara. Without Ankara's okay, he cannot compromise on the central issues over which the Greek Cypriots rejected the Annan Plan: a withdrawal of Turkish troops from the northern part of the island, the question of the settlers brought over from Turkey and a solution for Greek Cypriot refugees. But Iacovou also understands, of course, that Cyprus' strained relations with Turkey cast a heavy shadow over the possibility of its acceptance as a mediator. Israel will not risk this if it means hurting its vital relations with Turkey. On one hand, Iacovou brandishes Cyprus' right of veto as a member of the EU, which it can use to make Turkey's entry to Europe difficult. On the other hand, he declares that a "European Turkey" is in the interest of Greek Cypriots, and that they will not hold Ankara hostage to a resolution of the conflict on the island.
In light of the recent developments in Europe, the Cypriot minister can assume a moderate posture: The anticipated rejection of the European constitution (which is intended to enable the expanded EU to function effectively) would in any case defer the realization of Turkey's European dream, as would the prospect of victory for the Christian Democrats (who oppose Turkey's EU bid) in early elections in Germany.
Sometimes the work of the righteous, even if righteous in their own eyes, is performed by others. Iacovou will not have to soil his hands. And this will apparently also be the case in regard to the work of mediation.
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