Not at Nicosia's Expense

Cyprus is uneasy at the tightening relations between Turkey and Israel. That is how one may look at last week's visit to Israel by the foreign minister of the island republic, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis. The last time the top-ranking Cyprus diplomat visited here, in May 2005, was immediately after the visits to Jerusalem by the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and its foreign minister (now president), Abdullah Gul. The Cypriot foreign minister at that time, George Iacovou, claimed that his visit had been scheduled long in advance and was intended to strengthen the ties between the two countries, but it will probably not be a mistake to say he wanted to plant his country's flag in the Holy Land in order to scuttle, or at least counterbalance, the growing influence of the Turkish rival.

The visit of Kozakou-Marcoullis two and a half years later seems to show that in the case of the Israel-Cyprus-Turkey triangle of relations, past is prologue to present. Officially, Kozakou-Marcoullis was in Israel to get updated on the developments in the peace process following the Annapolis conference, offer her country's services in advancing the process, and examine ways to expand Israel-Cyprus relations. However, sources who were involved in organizing the visit say that what she really wanted most was a "dose of reassurance": The highly publicized visit by President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ankara last month is considered a rare achievement by Turkish diplomacy. In an interview to Haaretz, Kozakou-Marcoullis has no trouble admitting this. But she wants to ensure that the Turkish accomplishment will not come at Nicosia's expense.

Turkey and Israel are currently examining an "infrastructure corridor" which includes laying underwater oil, gas, electricity and water lines and optical fiber cables, from Ceyhan, in southeastern Turkey, to Haifa. The cost of the project is estimated at $5 billion. "The fact that Israel and Turkey have excellent relations, both military and economic, and that new projects are also being discussed, does not threaten us," Kozakou-Marcoullis says. However, according to one report, the Turks want the pipelines to pass through North Cyprus on their way to Israel. And even more disturbing: Gul and Erdogan asked Peres to examine the possibility of Israel's agreeing to the opening of a North Cyprus diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv, as well as the creation of an air and sea line between Haifa and Famagusta, in the northern part of the island. This is a request Cyprus cannot agree to. The Turkish attempts to upgrade the political status of the northern part of the island, which they conquered in 1974 - the "secessionist illegal entity," as the Cypriot foreign minister calls it - is for her a red line not to be crossed.

"The Turks approached many governments and asked to open diplomatic missions in the north. But the international community is obligated to the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and thus no country in the world maintains relations with this illegal entity."

In her talks with her counterpart, Tzipi Livni, and with Peres, it was made clear to Kozakou-Marcoullis that the Israeli-Turkish love story has its limits: Israel will not open a North Cyprus legation here or create the requested air and sea lines, and there is also no plan to have the route of the "infrastructure corridor" pass through the northern part of Cyprus. Israeli officials confirm this.

The Cypriot diplomat can also chalk up another accomplishment. Last month, in a visit to Damascus, she received guarantees from Syrian President Bashar Assad that the maritime line recently inaugurated between the Syrian port of Latakia and Famagusta would be canceled. The guarantees were given only after Kozakou-Marcoullis visited Beirut, met with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and declared Cyprus's support for the territorial integrity of Lebanon. According to one assessment, it was the Cypriot game over the "Lebanese card" that made Assad yield.

Kozakou-Marcoullis accepts with understanding the considerable efforts being made by Peres to promote Turkey's entry into the European Union. Cyprus, too, supports this, she says. She says while rejecting the assessment that in the political constellation that now exists in Europe, Cyprus can play the good and generous boy and hide behind the backs of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are publicly opposed to Turkey's joining.

She rejects Peres' equation, to the effect that the EU has to choose between a "European Turkey and, God forbid, Iranian-Fundamentalist Turkey" but declares at the same time: "Turkey is our neighbor and we aspire, therefore, that it undergo transformation, that it be stable, democratic and secular. As long as it controls part of our territory, its transformation into an Islamic state will increase the danger of the export of an Islamic agenda to the occupied part of Cyprus." In any event, until that transformation - which also includes an end to the army's control in the country and to the occupation of North Cyprus - Kozakou-Marcoullis argues that there is nothing to talk about in terms of Turkey joining the EU. In the eyes of its partners in the EU, Cyprus is not only a European state but also a Middle Eastern one.

If Turkey is described as a bridge between East and West, Cyprus presents itself as Europe's eastern gateway to the Middle East and the Middle East's western gateway to Europe. Accordingly, the foreign minister sounds almost offended when she relates that her country was not invited to Annapolis: "We would have been happy to have been there, not only because of our proximity to the region but also because of our contribution over the years on various Middle Eastern issues, and because of the very good relations we have with Arab countries, especially with those that can contribute to a solution in the Middle East."

In certain circumstances, Cyprus could become the EU's envoy to the Middle East. This immediate European neighbor knows the region, maintains good relations with both sides, is too small to worry anyone, and has no hidden agenda. But there is one "small" problem: Cyprus is itself a country in conflict, unable to resolve its long-standing internal existential dispute. Is there any chance that after Annapolis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved before the Cypriot conflict - the "graveyard of international diplomacy," as it is known? Kozakou-Marcoullis prefers not to risk forecasts, but is inclined, it seems, to reply positively: "In our case, unfortunately, Turkey continues to maintain a very anachronistic policy occupying the territory of a member state of the EU by maintaining 43,000 troops (in Northern Cyprus). Its behavior does not suit a European country."