The Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian summit held last month in Crete focused on energy connectivity and Turkish threats, but it also paid lip service to Egyptian pro-Palestinian messages, which is problematic.
Summary: The leaders of Greece, Cyprus and Egypt held their sixth (!) trilateral summit in recent years on October 10 in Crete. The summit was clearly focused on what all three counties see as their most pressing issues, mainly the importance of energy connectivity in the region, and the danger posed by the Turkish challenge to the Cypriot EEZ. For the first time, a joint secretariat is being established. Israel would do well (in the next summit with her Hellenic partners in Beersheba to take similar steps towards greater integration in the eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the Joint Declaration in Crete still paid lip service to a range of familiar Egyptian positions – including a call for a “viable and contiguous” a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” The persistent harping on these themes, and the highly problematic attitudes which still surface in the Egyptian public domain is an issue that Israel should discreetly but firmly raise with Sisi, given Israel’s ongoing efforts to mitigate Congressional hostility towards Egypt.
The tripartite summit at Elounda, on the Island of Crete, on October 10, 2018, brought together the leaders of Greece, Cyprus and Egypt for the sixth since 2014. Previous summits have been held in Cairo (November 2014 and October 2016) Nicosia (April 2015 and November 2017) and Athens (December 2015). Initiated jointly by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades, this format builds bridges over political differences – Tsipras is hard left, Anastasiades center-right – and over a long history of tensions between Greeks on one hand (as a Christian Denomination) and Muslims on the other.
Moreover, as the timing indicates, this came as a response to what both Greece and Cyprus saw back in the summer of 2013 as a misguided European response to the intervention of the Egyptian military against Mursi. Where Brussels and several key Member States saw an illegitimate coup, the two Hellenic states – historically in conflict with Turkey, and now worried about Erdogan’s Islamist agenda – saw first and foremost the removal of the active threat posed by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the cornerstone of regional stability.
So did Israel. Indeed, a parallel series of trilateral meetings of the two were held with Prime Minister Netanyahu (– four so far, with the fifth scheduled to be held in Beersheba. This pattern – complemented more recently by a trilateral with King Abdallah of Jordan – can be described as piling up the building blocks of a new regional security architecture.
The text of the joint declarations which each of these summits have produced defines their purpose as “promoting peace, stability, security and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean.” It is largely taken up with long (in the case of Israel, very long) lists of practical activities to be undertaken by the ministerial and professional echelons in all three countries, on a wide range of issues – from technological innovation to the preservation of underwater archeological heritage sites.
In the case of the summits with Israel, these lists tend to be quite specific, and to reflect the extensive fields of cooperation which indeed does take place through the work of various trilateral committees. In the text issued in Crete, with Egypt, the language was more general. A large portion of the declaration was dedicated to regional crisis points – the Palestinians (as detailed below), Syria, Libya, and illegal migration.
But it also included references to the “Cyprus-Egypt-Greece Collaborative Innovation Network (CEG COIN)” established by the previous summit and now headquartered in Burg al-Arab, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast; to environmental issues, including the Sub-Regional Marine Oil Pollution Contingency Plan; to the encouragement of cruise tourism; to education, the importance of small businesses, and more. Significantly, the declaration also includes – “with a view to improving the effectiveness of tripartite cooperation” – a decision to establish a Permanent Secretariat in Nicosia. Presumably, a similar decision will be, and should be, taken in the next Israeli-Greek-Cypriot tripartite summit.
The key aspect of the text, in any case, was the straightforward support that the summit gave to Cyprus against Turkish pressures regarding energy production in the Cypriot EEZ. The Joint Declaration implied that the Turkish position runs counter to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; and emphasized the need for greater energy connectivity in the Eastern Mediterranean (which cannot be achieved effectively unless Cyprus is free to exercise its sovereign rights). Not surprisingly, the Turkish government reacted angrily to these “allegations”. The rising tension over this issue may soon present Israel with the need to find the right balance between our commitment to our Hellenic partners, our need to push forward for energy integration, and at the same time, the need to avoid as much as possible another cycle of escalation with the already hostile Turkish leadership, which recently took steps to mend the frayed relationship with the Trump Administration.
Notably, the Joint Declaration did not explicitly refer to Israel in any way as a player in regional security or energy cooperation. Moreover, in line with traditional Egyptian Foreign Ministry tropes – and despite the friendly atmosphere of Sisi’s meeting with Netanyahu in New York – the text reiterated the standard line on the need for a “just, negotiated and lasting peace settlement… through the establishment of a sovereign, viable and contiguous Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, living at peace with all her neighbors… the only solution that responds satisfactorily to Israeli and Palestinian security needs and to Palestinian aspirations”.
This is neither new nor exceptional. Israel has grown accustomed to such language. Perhaps the references to a negotiated outcome, and to Israeli security needs, should even be appreciated as the imprint of Egypt’s (and Israel’s) Hellenic partners and friends. But in the context of an aggressive, even virulent, anti-Israeli public atmosphere in Egypt – recently exemplified by the Cairo Film Festival’s decision to rescind the invitation to the great French Jewish director Claude Lelouch, due to his stand in support of Israel – this harping on the “Palestinian aspirations” is an irritant that Israeli policy should not entirely ignore.
Given the full extent of Israeli cooperation with Egypt in security matters; the role granted to Egypt in seeking an “arrangement” in Gaza; and the support that Israel and her friends have been lending to Egypt, steadily and regularly, against significant hostile pressures in Congress – which once again seem to be on the rise – Israel is entitled to speak discreetly to the Egyptian leadership about reducing this level of overt hostility, and avoiding this pattern of automatic support for Palestinian demands.
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