Turkey expects Israel to respect rights of Turkish Cypriots

Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the press after their meeting at the presidential palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Feb. 16, 2012. (Photo: EPA)

March 31, 2013, Sunday/ 16:20:00

Since the détente in Turkish-Israeli relations that came about as a result of a belated Israeli apology, Turkey expects that an alliance that blossomed between Greek Cyprus and Israel in the past two years, especially on energy and defense issues, should be revised carefully to ensure that the rights of Turkish Cypriots are not infringed upon with regard to the island's natural gas and oil reserves.

Last week, the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), Derviş Eroğlu, said in a written statement, “Hopefully Israel, after a new period in Turkish-Israeli relations [having begun with the apology] will come to understand that it cannot ignore the rights of the KKTC.”

The Turkish press has recently given a lot of attention to the process of mending ties between Turkey and Israel, following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apology to Turkey for a 2010 raid on an aid flotilla that resulted in the deaths of eight Turks and a Turkish-American.

“No country, including Israel, should enter into a relationship that would ignore the rights of Turkish Cypriots,” a Turkish official stated to Today's Zaman, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.

“The hydrocarbon reserves around Cyprus belong to all Cypriots and no country, including Israel, should give credit to unilateral initiatives. They should not participate in the Greek Cypriot parceling of the area,” the official maintained.

A deal last week to mend fences between Turkey and Israel may also isolate the Greek Cypriots in their plans to export the gas through a route circumventing Turkey. Analysts also say the reconciliation deal is likely to pave the way for direct energy cooperation between Turkey and Israel, which also has gas reserves in the east Mediterranean -- bypassing Greek Cyprus.

"The alliance between Israel and Greek Cyprus, started after the gas discoveries, has shown signs of becoming more like a political alliance given anti-Turkey discourse. The apology has certainly created an important opportunity for developing relations between Turkey and Israel, but if Turkey maintains its support for Hamas and continues anti-Israel discourse in the region, the political warming between Israel and Greek Cyprus could grow, as well as Israel's search for an alliance," Dr. Emre İşeri, a lecturer in the international relations department of İstanbul's Kadir Has University, has asserted.

The Israeli and Greek Cypriot administrations began to cooperate on energy matters right after American oil company Noble Energy made gas discoveries around the island. In September 2011, the company began exploratory drilling in Cyprus Block 12 (Aphrodite field) in parallel with its operations in Israeli waters and found between 5 and 8 trillion cubic feet (tcf), or between 142 and 227 billion cubic meters (bcm), more than Cyprus can consume in a century.

Turkey has long warned the Greek Cypriot government against unilateral moves to extract natural gas and oil reserves off Cyprus, saying the Turkish Cypriots, who run their own state in the north of the island, also have a say on these reserves.

As soon as Greek Cyprus declared that it would start drilling in cooperation with Israel, Turkey announced that it would do “whatever necessary” to defend Turkish and Turkish Cypriot rights, raising the possibility of a naval confrontation. Defense cooperation between Greek Cyprus and Israel as new allies, also being important in itself, has gained more value with such possibility, thus being seen as another important aspect of their cooperation.

Large-scale exercises carried out in the area by the Turkish military represented an attempt to intimidate the Cypriots and show them that Turkey will not sit back and let the Greek Cypriot-Israeli partnership continue with their ambitious plans, as that would be a major blow to Turkish interests.

Professor Mensur Akgün, a foreign policy expert from the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), claimed that the optimum future scenario is that Israel would take advantage of its rapprochement with Greek Cyprus and with Turkey and use its leverage to mediate a solution between the Greek Cypriot administration and Turkey for the future of the island.

“This would be a win-win scenario,” said Akgün.

“On the other hand, Israel has to make a choice between Turkey's and Greek Cyprus's friendship. Weighing the two; one is a small island with a population of around 800,000, divided and economically strained. The country will decide to get either the benefits of a long term economic cooperation or Turkey's alliance,” Akgün also noted.  “I hope it [the Jewish country] will not have to make such a choice,” the also added.

Turning Greek crisis into an opportunity for a solution

However, the official said that the gas drilling efforts around Cyprus would also make the actors evaluate how it could be exported it to the world.

“On that question, a pipeline through Turkey would be the most viable option. In order to make a deal [for a solution on the island], it will be required to sit at the table and to start negotiations. The crisis that is currently shaking the Greek Cypriot economy could turn into an opportunity, could be an assurance for security and stability in the East Mediterranean,” the official noted.

The Greek Cypriot administration will have to rely on Turkey to export the natural gas it hopes to extract from eastern Mediterranean fields, Turkey thinks.

Davutoğlu has reiterated this week that there are three options to solve the gas drilling issue: The immediate resumption of talks for a comprehensive political settlement between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots within a set timeframe; or if this were to fail, the establishment of a joint committee of Turkish and Greek Cypriot representatives to decide on how to share the hydrocarbon reserves between the two communities in the absence of a political settlement; and finally a two-state solution that would mean permanent partition of the island.

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