The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

For analytical as well as practical and even political reasons, the time has come to re-define Israel’s place in the world in terms of belonging to the “eastern Mediterranean” region, not the “Middle East.”

The term “Middle East” is a colonial relic from an age in which the world was measured by distances from London, England. For analytical as well as practical and even political reasons, the time has come to re-define Israel’s place in the world in terms of belonging to the eastern Mediterranean region.

Can the Eastern Mediterranean indeed be viewed as a significant strategic sub-system of the international order? The up and coming fifth Greek-Cypriot-Israeli tripartite summit, soon to be held in Beersheba (which seeks to become one of the globe’s cyber capitals) will serve as living proof that this is indeed the case.

From a “globalist” perspective, the late December meeting may lead to US military participation in a joint Greek-Cypriot-Israeli exercise in the eastern Mediterranean; a sign that Washington is learning to think of the Mediterranean as more than just another SLOC (sea lane of communication). It falls to Israel and its regional allies to help make the case. True, it would be a better world if we could all settle our issues without any foreign presence. But given what we know about the Russian presence and about Chinese plans, we need the US to be fully engaged and cognizant of what is at stake. On this front, cooperation between the Jewish and Hellenic diasporas could be of great help.

The eastern Mediterranean is also significant from a “realist” perspective. Israel and its regional partners hold a hard-nosed view of the world’s dangers, in contradistinction to the Kantian spirit of “world peace” prevailing in Brussels. To put it another way: The EU was born without the capacity to spell the word “enemy,” whereas for Israel, as for NATO, enemies are a reality we must contend with every day.

We can build in the eastern Mediterranean effective coalitions and alliances that can restore an endangered balance of power and thwart the ambitions of “revisionist” powers seeking to dominate their neighbors and the region (– and in the case of Iran, to bring about Israel’s demise). There are plenty of security challenges that can be answered through cooperation.

Still, even from an “idealist” Kantian perspective, bringing the entire eastern Mediterranean together will possibly reap benefits for the pursuit of peace. A functional community of nations may help resolve, or at least may help create better conditions for at least managing some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Israel and the Palestinians; the Cyprus problem; the future of the Kurds – each of these issues could be handled in better ways in the context of Mediterranean cooperation.

Indeed, from an economic point of view the region is fast becoming an energy hub, and regional cooperation is vital for any effort aimed at bringing these vast (mainly natural gas) resources to the market. Moreover, indicators such as the use of Haifa harbor for trade between Jordan and Turkey (trade that once upon a time was conducted over Syrian roads); and the growing interest of China in the context of President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road initiative” – prove that the eastern Mediterranean needs to be seen as one unit.

Finally, from the perspective of those of us who think in “constructivist” terms, ideas and identities matter. So does faith. Taha Hussein, the great Egyptian scholar, not only mastered the two great civilizational traditions but actually saw them as a whole. Like Camus at the other end of the Mediterranean, he argued in favor of “mutawassetiyah” (or Mediterraneite in French), a common cultural and historical identity all related to “mare nostrum.”

True, we are nowhere near the establishment of a collective security system of all Mediterranean coastal states and their two non-Mediterranean neighbors, Mauritania and Jordan. This may be a distant vision. And yet we are seeing are building blocks being put together that can be used to build a sub-regional security regime. Following the Beersheba summit, and based on the earlier sixth Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian summit, two tripartite secretariats are now going to be working regularly in Nicosia, back to back – steps towards a broader vision.

Earlier this year, I proposed that that further down the road we should seek to bring about a 3 plus 3 framework, modelled after the 5 plus 5 framework in the western Mediterranean (which involves Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Malta, plus Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). In the eastern case (3 plus 3), this would involve Italy, Greece and Cyprus plus Egypt, Israel and Jordan.

One point needs to be clear: This should be an association of like-minded people. But this does not shut the door for countries that are not like-minded now (like Turkey), but that may change their stance. This is not an exclusive club, but one based on common values, and the door should be held open.

This is also why it is important for this effort to go beyond G-to-G (government to government) and M-to-M (military to military) relations. We need P-to-P (people to people) relations, and D to D (diasporic dialogue), and TT to TT – think tank to think tank relations, too.

Dr. Lerman delivered these remarks at the summation of a December 11, 2018 international conference on New Realities in the Eastern Mediterranean, held in Jerusalem under the co-sponsorship of JISS and B’nai B’rith International, along with the Hellenic Institute and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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