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February 21, 2012, Tuesday

Cyprus-Israel: Closer relations create increased tension

Four months before Cyprus takes up the EU’s rotating presidency, tensions are increasing on and around the island. While this is partially to do to with a last-ditch attempt by the UN to speed up progress on the peace talks for the reunification of the island, which has ruffled a few feathers, it is far more a consequence of ongoing Greek Cypriot gas exploitation efforts and the linked upgrading of ties with Israel.

Energy reserves in the Levant Basin, which are estimated to be some 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and some 1.7 billion barrels of oil, could make Cyprus energy self-sufficient while transforming Israel into an energy exporter. These developments have annoyed both Turkey and Lebanon, which claim they also have rights to these rich reserves, further destabilizing an already volatile region.

Following the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Cyprus some three months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Cyprus last week, and it was the first time an Israeli prime minister has visited the island. Historically, the Greek Cypriots have had a very cautious approach towards developing closer ties with a country that shared such close military ties with Turkey. However, since Turkey fell out with Israel, Tel Aviv has moved to warm up relations with both Greece and Cyprus, with which it is now building up ties in a number of different sectors. The top priority is energy including the possibility of a joint pipeline to export gas to Europe and Asia, although this has not yet been agreed to by the Greek Cypriots.

Apart from energy, other areas for cooperation include tourism, health and defense. The two signed a military “search and rescue agreement” that allows Israel to use Cypriot airspace and territorial waters in case of accidents or actions against oil or gas rigs in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). To this end, Israel will apparently create a new division of its armed forces and is planning to purchase new submarines and torpedo boats, seemingly preparing to taking on challengers.

After having to be bailed out of a financial crisis by Russia, there has not surprisingly been a lot of excitement over the expected riches set to flow into Greek Cypriot coffers. Unfortunately, caught up in all the excitement, the Greek Cypriots seem to have forgotten to draw up any sort of energy strategy and seem to be planning from one week to the next. Hence, there has been quite a lot of arguing among the political establishment about who should control the gas. The opposition parties seemingly want to restrict the government’s authority by handing over decision making to technocrats. Furthermore, there is the issue of their Turkish Cypriot brothers, and their rights to share the “gas bounty.”

It has been suggested by former Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Rolandis and others that out of the net income from the oil and gas reserves a percentage to be agreed would be deposited in an account for the Turkish Cypriots. This would be payable either upon solution of the Cyprus problem or at a fixed time to be agreed, whichever happens earlier. What is evident, as was again underlined by Rolandis in a series of letters he published, is that by having such a plan a military adventure would probably be avoided. Moreover, it would represent a constructive gesture to the Turkish Cypriots that could prove conducive to the solution of the Cyprus problem. However, while this has been floated around by some Greek Cypriot politicians, unfortunately, nothing has been followed through or made concrete yet.

Turkey continues to express deep dissatisfaction with the Foreign Ministry, stating that it would “take all necessary measures to protect its rights and interests in recently discovered natural gas deposits off the coast of Cyprus,” dismissing any Israeli-Cypriot deal demarking the maritime borders. The Greek Cypriots continuously complain about this threatening behavior, which they have brought to the EU table, calling for the international community to support them. To a certain degree Cyprus has obtained such support, although behind closed doors in Brussels, a somewhat different opinion is often expressed. Many view the timing to push ahead with the energy explorations as totally undermining the peace talks.

Consequently, the number of mock dogfights between Greece and Turkey has increased. According to Greeks and Greek Cypriots, recent military exercises carried out by Turkey have seen Turkish warships and planes enter into the EEZ and airspace of Cyprus.

It is unfortunate that so far the discovery of these energy reserves has only served to create further instability and undermine efforts to bring greater peace. It should be used to create greater regional harmony in a way that is beneficial to all parties, helping them bury the hatchet and build confidence. While one would like to rule out the chance of military confrontation, unfortunately, it would seem some in the region are still prepared to take that route if necessary.

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