Last week saw an unprecedented flurry of diplomatic activity that culminated with a summit of the Israeli, Greek and Cypriot leaders in Nicosia. For Israel, this is a win-win development, creating a new geopolitical bloc in the eastern Mediterranean in which closer relations with Greece and Cyprus counterbalance Turkey to some extent. It also has some military and security significance.
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On Tuesday Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon paid an official visit to Athens as the guest of his Greek counterpart Panos Kammenos. On Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several cabinet colleagues met in Jerusalem with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and around a dozen Greek cabinet members. On Thursday, the leaders of all three countries met in Nicosia.
Ya’alon’s visit to Greece followed intensive defense cooperation between the two states in recent years, consisting mainly of frequent joint air force and navy maneuvers. Since 2014 an Israel Defense Forces attache has been stationed in Athens, with responsibility for Cyprus as well.
In a statement at a press conference with the Greek defense minister, Ya’alon said Turkey supports terror and buys petroleum from the Islamic State organization. At the conclusion of the Nicosia summit, which Netanyahu termed historic, Netanyahu, Tsipras and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades issued a joint statement saying their cooperation was not exclusive, making it clear that Turkey could join the group. The leaders of Greece and Cyprus stressed that the cooperation is not aimed against any other state, hinting at Turkey.
The Turkish shadow hovered over all of last week’s meetings. The reports of Israel’s talks with Turkey to achieve a reconciliation agreement, with the United States’ encouragement, pushed the Greeks and Cypriots to expand their cooperation with Israel. Although Greece claims its relations with Turkey are normal and despite the talks between the Turkish and Greek leaders in Cyprus in a bid to solve the 40-year crisis, Athens and Nicosia still view Turkey as a potential enemy.
Greece says Turkey is deliberately moving masses of Arab refugees into it, to harm it, and Cyprus is still partially under Turkish occupation, which began in 1974.
Tsipras’ policy toward Israel is surprising and impressive. Tsipras, whose left-wing Syriza party was very critical of Israel, is conducting a centrist policy both inside Greece and in foreign affairs. He is continuing to upgrade his country’s relations with Israel, which began in 2010.
Since relations began to improve, Greece has feared that an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation would be at its expense. Israel is making efforts to allay this fear. Tsipras wants to prove Greece has its own status in the east Mediterranean and has even announced his desire to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Greece is prepared to help Israel in the European Union institutions and has already proved it when it recently headed the opponents to marking products made in the West Bank settlements.
This is a sharp change in Greek’s policy in the EU. Until 2010 Greece was one of the least friendly states to Israel, alongside Portugal and Ireland. Cyprus supports Greece’s positions almost automatically, so that gives Greece a double vote in EU institutions. Another Israeli advantage is that it may encourage Syria to be more flexible in its negotiations with Israel over normalizing the relations.
Cyprus of course has its own score with Turkey and is also interested in demonstrating its independence to the Turks. Israel and Cyprus have close military ties, which began to be forged a few years ago in the days of Communist President Demetris Christofias. This policy is being upheld by the conservative Anastasiades.
The joint statement in Nicosia after the tripartite summit said the states’ cooperation would focus on seven areas — energy, tourism, research and technology, environment, water, migration and fighting terror. It was also decided to examine relaunching the East Med gas pipeline project, which would funnel Israeli natural gas to Europe via Cyprus and Greece.
This last issue is far from concluded. Israel doesn’t know how much gas it will have, whether it will be able to export it, to whom and how. It has been holding talks with Greece and Cyprus on this for several years with no real results. Laying a gas pipeline is possible, but is technically very complicated and will cost several billion dollars. Turkish companies are also interested in the Israeli gas, creating a further incentive for Greece and Cyprus to move ahead in this area.
The author, Israel’s ambassador to Greece from 2010 to 2014, is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University.