Friends on the East-West Seam

The EU may be turning cold shoulder to Israel these days, but Cyprus is drawing closer. An interview with President Dimitris Christofias due in Israel on Sunday.

NICOSIA - Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias is scheduled to land in Israel on Sunday morning. "This is a historic visit," he told Haaretz on Wednesday, "the first official visit by a president of the republic to Israel." Christofias will hold meetings in Jerusalem, visit Ramallah and return home that evening.

Cyprus' sudden improved relations with Israel - at a time when most other European Union members are turning a cold shoulder - is not the exclusive result of chilled relations between Israel and Turkey.

Dimitris Christofias.

"I am not interested in basing our relations on the troubles between Turkey and Israel," Christofias said. "Both countries have enough interests in common and enough goodwill to create a foundation for welcome future activity."

Observers in Cyprus say the key to the improving relations lies in those common interests - among them, what is referred to as "the division of the sea and its treasures" between the two countries (Lebanon is a hidden partner in this ) - and in the belief that Israel's good relations with Washington will rub off in some magical way on the island.

The Cypriots are making no secret of their enthusiasm over the natural-gas reserves discovered off Israel's coast, or of their desire to be partners in converting them into an efficient energy source as soon as possible.

"Cypriots are industrious, progressive people who understand business and work, and are ready to devote every effort to cooperate in this field and others," Christofias declared.

Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Antonis Paschalides also aspires to advance the rapidly emerging cooperation - economic and also strategic - and to anchor it in formal agreements. With the sincerity characteristic of Cypriots, Paschalides notes that with all the enthusiasm, however, Cyprus cannot ignore Israeli tourism and real estate projects in the island's north, which is under disputed Turkish control.

Christofias has no problem talking warmly about generations of ties between Israel and the Cypriots, while also expressing sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. It is easier for him to speak this way as the leader of the Communist Party, which won more than 30 percent of the vote in his country's last elections.

"I am not intervening in Israel's internal politics," he said, "but we on the left definitely have something to offer you. We played a historic role in the fight for human rights, workers' rights and equal rights for women. The public also remembers our underground fight against the Nazis and against British colonialism, and I take pride in the fact that we recognized Israel's right to independence from the outset and helped Holocaust survivors immigrate there. In this sense, we can definitely talk about a historic alliance."

Naturally, the president does not want to talk about Israel's right wing, preferring to discuss the counterpart in his country. "The extreme right has labeled us animals. But communists are people and they operate on behalf of people. The extreme right in Cyprus caused terrible damage to the country and to society," he noted.

But even Christofias - mocked by many Cypriots who believe he is nostalgic for the Soviet Union (he studied in Moscow at the end of the 1960s ) - admits with regret that it is extremely difficult to realize the Marxist system, which he calls the epitome of humanism.

In his three years as president, and particularly since the Turkish Cypriots hardened their position to the point where it is doubtful that the few talks will lead to anything, he has tried to foment minor but saliently socialist changes in Cyprus' liberal economic structure. He has increased pensions for the elderly by 30 percent, made subsidized water available to all (naturally, Israeli companies are in charge of the country's vigorous desalination project ), and more.

"But the EU will not let us implement many things," he complained. In his bureau in the official Venetian residence in the heart of the capital, Nicosia (which the Cypriots call by its old Greek name, Lefkosia ), he sits behind a heavy wooden desk. On the edge are perched a thick Greek dictionary and thesaurus.

"Greek is such a rich language, and when I write I feel the need to look for the precise word. There is always another word," he explained.

In the evening, when the big windows in the bureau grow dark, a massive Turkish flag lights up resplendently on the opposite hillside, apparently to irritate people on this side of the "green line." Next to it is a small flag of North Cyprus, an entity that has not been recognized by any country in the world, the president's aides are quick to note.

Christofias was elected president in 2008 in the hope that he would bring about a historic compromise on the divided island, perhaps because he himself was born in the north, which is called the "occupied territories" here.

"I close my eyes and see my village in Kyrenia," he said. "The left-wing activists' cafe where my father hung out; the bicycle I rode to distribute the party's leaflets; the soccer club I played for. I will never forget. Every detail of that place and time shaped my personality."

But even amid the emotional longing, Christofias returns to pragmatic politics, which includes the need to find a solution for more than 180,000 Greek Cypriots who were expelled from their homes - but also, he adds, the human, social and cultural needs of all the island's residents. He calls the partition illusory and cruel.

"I am not the right person to talk to the Israeli leadership," he added. "I can only say that the strong side should also be brave."

Two states, one people

The Cypriot journalists who came to Israel last week for a briefing by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman came away with the impression that Israel is not contemplating any compromise. The newspaper Politis quoted Lieberman's remarks about the bloc Israel is trying to forge, via Cyprus and Greece, with the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russia, and about the vision of separation between Jews and Arabs.

Such comments had appeared in the London-based Telegraph in 2006. At that time, Lieberman said that until 1974 the Turks and Greeks lived together, and engaged in bloody conflicts. Afterward they were separated, he said, and since then the island has been stable and secure. In reply to a remark by the interviewer that the separation involved mass expulsions, Lieberman, then minister for strategic affairs, said that this was indeed so, but that the people were significantly better off as a result.

"That is an unfortunate misunderstanding," said Titina Loizidou, an expert on Cypriot cultural history. "The fact that there are no violent incidents between the sides does not blunt the wrong that the Cypriots feel every day and the anomaly of tearing a small and homogeneous island like this into two hostile parts.

"There is no similarity between the two stories [of Israel and Cyprus]. You are two neighboring peoples who should live in two states. We are one country, a civil republic. The Cypriot Turks were and remained part of us, despite the cultural differences," she said.

If anyone thinks the north feels differently, Loizidou recalls the recent stormy demonstrations organized there by teachers' organizations and others, against Turkey. The excuse was onerous economic measures, but the real reason is the feeling that Turkey is exploiting them in order to spite Cyprus and Greece, she said.

In 1989, Loizidou, who is from a family of physicians in Kyrenia, petitioned the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, demanding that the Turkish government compensate her and her family for expelling and dispossessing them, for the loss of their property and their livelihood. Ten years later, the court sided with her, and the Turkish government paid her 1 million euros and evacuated her family's home. But Loizidou chose to remain in Nicosia. "As long as the Turkish army controls the northern part of my country, I will not go back," she stated.

Barbed-wire fences slash the landscape at the edges of the Old City wall. Near the historic museum that tells thousands of years of the island's history, and a spacious garden planted by the British to commemorate Queen Victoria is one of the three crossing points the Turks have authorized in the past few years. Around it is a United Nations-supervised no-man's-land, at the center of which is the Ledra Hotel, one of the finest old buildings in the city. The hotel was the venue for the talks that to Cypriots symbolize the separation.

"Now," Loizidou says, "we are waiting for it to become the symbol of union."

Just outside the neutral zone is a small building, a sad monument to a world frozen in time: the Kyrenia municipality, which moved here along with the exiled inhabitants. "Here is the port," Loizidou said, showing me a photograph, "and here is my father's boat, and this is where I played with my girlfriends."

An outsider cannot understand how deep and alive the wound of the artificial partition is. Still, anyone who wants to undo the partition and reunite the island understands this necessitates a compromise.

"The Greeks who in 2003 voted against Kofi Annan's plan to unite the island were afraid of excessive involvement by Turkey and the Turkish army," Loizidou explained. "If the same referendum were to be held again today, I believe the majority would vote in favor."

Despite all the differences that Loizidou and others emphasize, the message Cyprus projects to Israel is a consoling feeling of closeness. With all respect for gas and security, the Cypriots seem to be saying, we are like neighbors, aren't we? After all, you, like us, are the east of the West and the west of the East.