A Policy-Oriented Think Tank Addressing Foreign Policy and National Security Issues for a Safe Israel

Israel’s Priorities in the Eastern Mediterranean:The Tango with Turkey Has Limits

The first foreign minister to visit Greece after the swearing-in of Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ new government was Israel’s Eli Cohen – a sign that both countries see the importance of their relationship and the new alignment of forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. While new avenues of dialogue are opening between Jerusalem and Ankara – including a planned visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, officially confirmed by Erdogan – Israel’s priorities should remain firm. Pressure to agree to a gas pipeline to Turkey should be resisted. Regarding national security, the partnership with Greece and Cyprus is a game changer, giving Israel vital strategic depth during a conflict. Hence the importance of cooperation with both and support for Cyprus’s freedom to make its own foreign policy decisions.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece met with his Israeli counterpart Handshake of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel Eli Cohen

Eli Cohen’s Visit to Greece as an Indication of Israel’s Priorities

The convincing win by Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ Nea Dimokratia (ND, New Democracy) center-right party in the second round of the Greek parliamentary elections on June 25 stabilizes the political scene in Athens. Since the Greek constitutional system significantly rewards the party with the most votes in a second round, ND now has an absolute majority of 158 out of 300 in parliament. In effect, it completes a cycle of elections in key Eastern Mediterranean nations, confirming experienced political figures in office: Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, governing since December 29, with a firm parliamentary coalition (despite the significant turmoil over judicial reform); Nikos Christodoulides, formerly foreign minister, sworn in as president of Cyprus on February 28; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won the second round of the presidential election in Turkey (May 28) and was sworn in for a third term of office (June 3).

That implies that “old hands” are in charge across the region, with the capacity to plan (in Egypt, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi does not need anything but the mere semblance of democratic niceties to confirm his power). That, in turn, may create opportunities for strengthening existing bonds of cooperation – and exploring new options for resolving or reducing old conflicts.

In this context, the visit of Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen (July 6) – the first of its kind to be hosted by new Greek Foreign Minister Giorgios Gerapetritis – signaled the importance both countries attach to their cooperation and their role as the strategic anchors of a new alignment of forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. Common perceptions of threats and opportunities, an affinity of values, and the prospect of economic cooperation, specifically but not exclusively in the energy field, are all part of this new “bridge over the Mediterranean.”

Israel is extensively involved in enhancing Greek military capabilities. Israelis have become a significant part of Greece’s tourist trade and major investors in Cyprus. Israel firmly supports the position taken by Greece and Egypt on delineating the EEZ borders in the Eastern Mediterranean – as opposed to the lines drawn by Turkey and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Ultimately Greece is likely to become, if not a hub than a conduit of Mediterranean energy to Europe. Meanwhile, Israel should be able to reassure Greece and Cyprus that no understanding would be reached with Erdogan, which runs against their interests.

What should be Netanyahu’s agenda in Turkey?

The recurrent hints and pressures Erdogan and his government used to persuade Israel to export the gas from its Mediterranean fields via Turkey (helping it establish itself as an energy hub) are ultimately pointless. Such a project would immediately run into conflict over the use of the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone. Israel has no wish to become tethered to a mercurial leadership in Turkey which still harbors hostile sentiments and might turn radically against Israel at times of crisis, particularly a confrontation with Hamas. Moreover, as detailed below, there are viable alternatives.

What, then, should be on the agenda during Netanyahu’s visit to Ankara if he rejects (no matter how politely) Erdogan’s push for a pipeline to Turkey? There are, as things stand, significant other fields over which the two countries – despite the bitter differences of the recent past – can find common ground, even if Israel avoids such a commitment and refuses to trade away its strategic partnership with Greece and Cyprus. The scope of trade – distinctly skewed in Turkey’s favor – keeps growing, and may do so even more (albeit marginally) if the present Israeli government proceeds with its plans to lower the cost of living by allowing agricultural imports. The poor performance of the Turkish economy in recent years seemed at some points to put Erdogan’s political survival in question: better relations with Israel, as well as with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, can help extricate Turkey from its present predicament.

At the strategic level, Israel shares with Turkey – as demonstrated in mid-July by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s visit to Baku – a keen interest in Azerbaijan’s ability to defend itself during growing tensions with Tehran. A traditional ally of Turkey (and speaking a Turkic language), Azerbaijan has enjoyed a strong security relationship with Israel over the years and recently opened an embassy after years of hesitation and delay. Turkey may take an ambivalent position toward Iran (there were only two members of the UN Security Council in 2010 who opposed the sanctions resolution 1929: Turkey and Brazil), but in Syria as well as over the future of Azerbaijan. Ankara and Tehran are on the opposite sides of the conflict.

Ultimately, on the question of Mediterranean identity and institutions, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have been taking a nuanced position, which leaves the doors of the “club” open to all who can prove to be “like-minded.” Erodgan’s neo-Ottomanism of the previous decade could not fit, nor can a posture that claims half of the Aegean in the name of “Mavi Vatan,” the “Blue Homeland” doctrine. If Erdogan is willing to distance himself from such fantasies, Israel could help chart a path toward broader regional integration (which may also reflect on Turkey’s standing in Washington) – but not at the expense of what has been achieved already.

Gas Export Options and Their Implications

In addition to existing exports to Egypt and Jordan – of national security importance and offering stable and secure markets – what Israel should seek in the Eastern Mediterranean (and elsewhere) are arrangements that create the highest possible degree of flexibility. Pipelines, in addition to their daunting costs, are not the best solution: LNG facilities would be, whether built in Cyprus (Israeli local authorities pose an insurmountable “Not In My Back Yard” resistance to any attempt to make them on Israeli soil) or onboard floating facilities at sea.

Their option is also to build a power station in Cyprus and connect it (and Israel’s production) by cable to the European grid. All these solutions would require a close relationship with both Nicosia and Athens. Some would also oblige Israel to stand firm in support of the Greek-Egyptian position over EEZ delineation, as opposed to the one drawn by Turkey and the “Government of National Accord” in Western Libya.

Turkey does not need to be left out: growing LNG/FLNG capacity could also provide gas (Israeli, Egyptian, or Cypriot) shipped to Turkish de-liquefication facilities, but in this manner, flexibility rather than a rigid mutual dependence could be secured.

The Importance of Cyprus for Israel’s Strategic Depth

One of the key reasons for Israel’s need to sustain and broaden its trilateral relationship with Greece and Cyprus has to do with the possible role they may be asked to play if Israel becomes involved in an all-out confrontation in the North (as it seems increasingly likely, given Hezbullah’s recent provocations), potentially drawing in Gaza as well. Given the scope of Hezbullah’s missiles and rockets, Israel’s ports and airports may come under a degree of threat that foreign commercial operators will not accept. In such a scenario, it would be the national carriers, such as El Al Airlines and Zim Shipping company – in which the government has a decisive stake enabling it to use them in an emergency – which must sustain the national lifeline: and the nearest logistical “base” from which they could do so would be Cyprus and Greece. Neither Turkey nor Israel’s Arab peace partners can be relied upon under such circumstances.

Interestingly, references to “strategic depth” came up in the comments made by senior Cypriot officials and officers at the latest round of the Israel-Hellenic Forum, organized by the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs in cooperation with B’nai B’rith World Center – Israel and the IDIS (Institute of International Relations of Panteion University) and held June 19-21 in Nicosia. It is this potential aspect – already bolstered by the large-scale military exercises conducted by the IDF in the Troodos Mountains on an annual basis – which makes it important for Israel to support the ongoing ability of Cyprus to make its own foreign policy and national security choices, free of a veto by Ankara. Even if there were to be renewed progress toward an agreed permanent status on the island as a whole – which Israel, and all others in the Eastern Mediterranean, should warmly welcome – this requirement for the retained independence of decision, vital to all parties, must be upheld.

Photo: IMAGO / Pacific Press Agency / Dimitrios Karvountzis

Picture of אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

Dr. Lerman is deputy director of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). He was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. He also served for eight years as director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. He teaches in the Middle East studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and in post-graduate programs at Tel Aviv University and the National Defense College. He is an expert on Israel’s foreign relations, and on the Middle East. A third-generation Sabra, he holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and a mid-career MPA from Harvard University.

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