x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Israel finds a new friend in Cyprus

Turkey opposes gas exploration by the Greek Cypriots and Israelis as the leaders of the two nations met to discuss further cooperation.

The president of Cyprus Demetris Christofias hosts Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Cypriot capital Nicosia yesterday. The two nations are eager to expand diplomatic and economic ties, despite Turkey’s opposition to their hydrocarbon cooperation.
The president of Cyprus Demetris Christofias hosts Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Cypriot capital Nicosia yesterday. The two nations are eager to expand diplomatic and economic ties, despite Turkey’s opposition to their hydrocarbon cooperation.

NICOSIA // Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday became the first Israeli prime minister to make the 45-minute flight to Cyprus, bolstering a flourishing new relationship spawned mainly by multi-billion dollar gas finds in the sea between the two countries.

Talks focused on cooperation in exploiting the hydrocarbon bonanza that, along with the Arab Spring and Israel's ruptured alliance with Turkey, is changing the region's politics in ways yet to crystallise.

Mr Netanyahu's trip will displease Turkey. It has challenged the right of Israel and Cyprus, which is represented internationally by the Greek Cypriots, to exploit their offshore resources.

The Israeli premier was hosted in Nicosia by the president Demetris Christofias, the European Union's only communist head of state: a sign that economic incentives are trumping ideological differences.

But both leaders rejected rumours that Israel was seeking the use of a Cypriot airbase for its warplanes to protect Israeli gasfields, a move that would severely harm Cyprus's valued ties with the Arab world.

And responding to a question about whether Israel would help Cyprus against Turkish threats, Mr Netanyahu said: "We are interested in developing peaceful relations for the benefit of our two countries and the region as a whole."

The only signed agreement announced yesterday was a routine one on joint search-and-rescue operations at sea.

Since falling out with Turkey, Israel views Cyprus as the safest and most direct route to export its gas to markets in Europe, which is trying to decrease its dependence on Russian energy.

Israel is also looking for new friends in the region and beyond while Cyprus views Israel as a bulwark against Turkey's growing regional influence.

The Mediterranean island has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974, which was triggered by a coup in Nicosia engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece.

Until the gas discoveries and Ankara's rift with Tel Aviv, Cyprus had cool ties with Israel in contrast to its traditionally far more cordial relations with the Arab world. Nicosia sent an ambassador to Israel only in 1994.

The Greek Cypriots will try to ensure that their potentially profitable new partnership with Israel in no way jeopardises their relations with the Arab world, analysts said. That means keeping their growing ties centred on economic cooperation and other bilateral issues such as trade, tourism, education, health and disaster relief operations.

At a press conference with Mr Netanyahu, the Cypriot president reaffirmed his country's commitment to an independent Palestinian state. "This will help keep Cyprus's credibility in the Arab world," said Hubert Faustmann, an international relations expert at the University of Nicosia.

On the eve of the Israeli premier's one-day visit, Mr Christofias's Akel communist party issued a statement condemning the "continued detention of Palestinians without charge in Israeli jails in violation of international law".

In December, Cyprus announced that drilling by Noble Energy, a US company, had discovered up to eight trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the island's Aphrodite field worth some €100 billion (Dh484bn).

The prospect is next to Israel's huge Leviathan field that Noble believes holds some 16 trillion cubic feet of gas. The Israeli energy company, Delek, has proposed a partnership with Cyprus to build a liquefaction plant on the island to process their joint gas riches.

Cyprus, with a population about one million, has ambitions to become a regional energy hub that will give it more international clout. Energy cooperation with Israel would advance that goal.

The Levant Basin, adjoining Cyprus, Israel, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, may contain as much as 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the US Geological Survey. That makes it one of the world's richest deposits - in one of the world's most fractious areas.

Tension soared in the east Mediterranean last September when Turkey warned the Greek Cypriots not to begin exploratory drilling for gas before there was a solution to the long-running Cyprus problem. Otherwise, Ankara argued, the Turkish Cypriots, whose breakaway state is recognised only by Turkey, would lose out on a share of any hydrocarbon riches.

When Cyprus refused to bow to pressure, a furious Turkey retaliated by sending a military-escorted oil-and-gas research vessel into the area and signed its own continental shelf agreement with the Turkish Cypriots.

Ankara has said it will carry out its own exploration drilling for oil and gas this month in Turkish-held northern Cyprus. Lebanon and Israel are also locked in a dispute over their potentially gas-rich maritime border.

Until recently, Turkey was Israel's strongest ally in the Muslim world, but those ties frayed badly during Israel's military move in 2009 against the Gaza Strip - an offensive Mr Christofias at the time condemned as "criminal".

The rupture occurred in May 2010 when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals on board an aid flotilla trying to breach Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Its rift with Ankara aside, Israel is also concerned by Islamist gains in post-Mubarak Egypt, spurring its efforts to find new friends. Israel's relations with Greece, which recognised Israel only in 1991, have warmed markedly, and Tel Aviv has also strengthened ties with Romania and Bulgaria, two other historic rivals of Turkey.

Cyprus, however, should hedge its bets, experts cautioned. There was a very good chance Turkey and Israel will eventually mend ties, albeit at a lower level than in the past, said James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist on the eastern Mediterranean at the London School of Economics. "Cyprus could be left high and dry in those circumstances."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae