Cypriot Unity: What's in It for Israel?

A windfall in the form of a Mediterranean gas pipeline that would benefit all sides.

AP

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman flew to Cyprus for a two-day visit this week. Unlike the reception he would have had in many other European capitals, in Nicosia Lieberman was welcomed with open arms, and during his visit the Cypriots announced that their president will visit Israel next month.

Nor did Lieberman disappoint his hosts: He denounced Turkey, always one of his favorite targets, for having sent a research ship last month to search for gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone.

Also this week, Israel was visited by a foreign minister who, despite his pleasant demeanor, has even more trouble than Lieberman does finding national leaders who are willing to host him – Odzil Nami of Northern Cyprus. Israel, like the entire rest of the world except for Turkey, doesn’t recognize Northern Cyprus as an independent state. Thus Nami’s visit wasn’t conducted under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, nor did he meet with any official Israeli representatives. Rather, he came here to attend an international conference on energy.

The gas deposits on the seabed of the eastern Mediterranean basin, which were the focus of both visits, have turned Israel into an energy power. These deposits have also raised hopes in our island neighbor that after 40 years of division between the Turkish population in the north and the Greeks in the south, there is finally a big enough incentive for resolving the conflict.

A Mediterranean pipeline

AFP

A peace agreement between the two halves of Cyprus would enable the Israeli and Cypriot gas deposits to be connected by pipeline with Turkey, whence they could travel overland to Europe. This would be the cheapest option for exporting the gas, and would be worthwhile for all the parties concerned – Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and the European Union, which wants to end its reliance on Russian gas.

And indeed, in the roiling, bloody Middle East, Cyprus has been virtually the only source of optimistic news over the last year. In February, the presidents of the island’s northern and southern halves met and issued a joint declaration opening official negotiations between the parties. Over the summer, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a new special envoy for Cyprus – Espen Barth Eide, a former Norwegian foreign and defense minister. Both sides say that after starting work in September, Eide injected new energy into the talks, and he himself voiced optimism about the chances of reaching an agreement.

But the undersea gas deposits wound up being the very issue that caused the talks to blow up. In response to Turkey’s dispatch of its research ship, the Greek Cypriots suspended the negotiations.

In an interview with Haaretz, Northern Cyprus’ foreign minister charged that the sweeping support for the Greek Cypriots’ positions by the international community, including Israel, is what turned the gas deposits from an incentive into an obstacle.

“As long as Greek-Cypriots believe that they can utilize all natural resources of Cyprus by themselves, ignoring Turkish-Cypriots, they will become more intransigent at the negotiation table, more arrogant, even to the point of leaving the negotiations table with a petty excuse, which they are doing right now,” Nami said.

Gas issue to blame for latest conflict

The Greek Cypriots agreed that the gas issue undermined the peace talks, but in their view, the blame for this rests with Turkey. Cypriot Ambassador to Israel Dimitris Hatziargyrou said the Turkish research ship, which entered Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone with a military escort, constituted a threat to his country, and negotiations could not be held under such a threat. He also noted the timing of the Turkish move – after the new UN envoy had already started work and helped the island’s rival parties to advance to what was supposed to have been a new stage of the peace talks.

“This was a well-designed action on the part of Turkey to intimidate with the purpose of achieving an advantage through the introduction of the hydrocarbons issue in the negotiations,” Hatziargyrou said.

Nami said the Turkish ship was sent at the request of the government of Northern Cyprus. “We were obliged to do this, as Turkish-Cypriots, because the Greek-Cypriot government does not involve us in the decision making process regarding hydrocarbons,” he said.

But he insisted the ship was merely an excuse for the Greek-Cypriot government to blow up the negotiations, pointing out that the last time Turkey sent such a ship, in 2011, the Greek Cypriots didn’t think this move justified calling off the talks.

According to the Turkish Cypriot foreign minister, blowing up the talks was a way for Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades to divert attention from his domestic political problems. Anastasiades, he claimed, also wanted to exploit the crisis between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several other Middle Eastern countries – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – to put pressure on the Turkish side, with an eye to resuming the talks later from a stronger position.

Finally, Nami claimed that it was actually the Greek Cypriots who were put off by the UN envoy’s energetic initiatives to solve the conflict. “It seems to me that the Greek-Cypriot side became a little bit afraid of his positive energy,” he said. “In the first meeting he was going to implement his ideas, the Greek-Cypriot leadership canceled their attendance.”

Ever since the talks were suspended, Eide has been shuttling between the two halves of Cyprus, as well as Ankara and Athens, in an effort to find a formula for resuming the peace talks. The Greek Cypriots say they will return to the negotiating table once the Turkish ship leaves their territory and accuse the Turkish Cypriots of refusing to engage in honest negotiations. The Turkish Cypriots are calling for a resumption of negotiations without preconditions and claim their neighbors to the south have retreated from the convergences reached at earlier stages of the talks.

Nevertheless, Nami remains upbeat. “Taking a long term view, I’m optimistic that the Cyprus issue will be resolved and this is just a temporary crisis,” he said.