Netanyahu Headed to Cyprus to Boost Cooperation on Security, Offshore Drilling

Natural gas in Israeli and Cypriot waters strategically important and expected to inject tens of billions of dollars into both countries' economies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be going to Cyprus on February 16 in what a Foreign Ministry source says is the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to the island country. Netanyahu hopes to increase cooperation with Cyprus in underwater drilling for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as security cooperation in the wake of the crisis in Israel's relations with Turkey and the instability of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Over the past few days, Cypriot media outlets have reported that Israel and Cyprus has signed a cooperation agreement relating to the protection of natural gas drilling sites, and UPI reported that Israel has also asked Cyprus for permission to station aircraft in the island country. The Cypriot government has not yet responded and it can be assumed that the subject will come up during Netanyahu's visit.

The Prime Minister's Office confirmed that Netanyahu will be making the trip, and said it was an effort to create closer ties between the countries.

The issue of gas discoveries will be a major topic of discussion during the visit, a senior Israeli official said. Recent discoveries of underwater natural gas reserves in Israeli and Cypriot economic waters are of strategic importance to both countries and are expected to provide an injection of tens of billions of dollars into the countries' economies. Netanyahu is interested in striking an agreement with the Cypriots on cooperation in the delivery of the gas to markets in Europe and Asia. He would also like to resolve several recent disputes over gas fields in adjacent areas, some of which are in waters in Israel's economic zone and others in Cypriot economic waters.

The Israeli premier's visit comes after dramatically closer relations between the two countries over the past two years against the backdrop of the severe crisis in relations between Israel and Turkey.

Before the May 2010 sailing of the Turkish flotilla that sought to break Israel's maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip, the Cypriot president issued a special order that is still in effect barring ships from sailing from Cyprus toward Gaza.

The Turks have directed strong threats at Cyprus in recent months over gas drilling activity and in connection with Cyprus' scheduled assumption of the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union in July.

Israel and Cyprus have also substantially boosted their security cooperation in recent months. Although both countries have stated that the move is not directed against any third country, Israeli Foreign Ministry sources acknowledge that the crisis in relations that both Israel and Cyprus are experiencing with Turkey as well as threats by Hezbollah to attack Israel's gas installations in the Mediterranean has encouraged closer Israeli-Cypriot security coordination. Earlier this month, Cyprus' defense minister, Demetris Eliades, visited Jerusalem.