It has become obvious that in the Eastern Mediterranean a new politico-economic, and in an important degree, strategic, axis is developing, consisting of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. This cooperation has not come as a surprise for those who follow the geopolitical developments of the last years in the region. It is the product of various factors and developments that have taken place on different levels. Yet, the most significant factors that have led to the creation of this cooperation (and for many, alliance) are the gradual changes in Turkish foreign policy, mainly since 2002, which have led to the deterioration of the Turkish-Israeli relations, as well as the discovery of hydrocarbons in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus, in conjunction with the efforts of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) to delimitate its EEZ with other states of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish-Israeli relations took a turn for the worst in May 2010, with the “Gaza Flotilla incident”, where Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish and one Turkish-American activist during a raid on the “Mavi Marmara” ship that was carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip. Regarding the case of Cyprus and the natural gas, the tensions escalated when Turkey, since the summer and autumn of 2011, threatened the RoC both verbally and by mobilizing warships, in order to achieve the interruption of its efforts for drillings in “Block 12”, in the southeast of the Island.
The juncture that brought Israel, Cyprus, and Greece together was twofold and had to do both with matters of common – mainly economic – gains, and with matters of regional balance of power. On the one hand Israel had, in 2009 and 2010, already discovered the “Tamar” and “Leviathan” natural gas reserves, respectively, while the Cypriot natural gas reserve that was discovered in the end of 2011 is adjoined to the Israeli “Leviathan” one. This reality has also brought to the table the issue of possible future connection of the two reserves through an underwater pipeline for the transportation of the natural gas to Cyprus where its liquefaction will be taking place (LNG plant). On the other hand there is the rupture in Turkish-Israeli relations, with Turkey approaching the Arab World, thus becoming a strong supporter of the Palestinians, while at the same time it refuses to re-approach Israel until the latter apologizes, convict those responsible, and compensate the families of the victims of the “Gaza Flotilla incident”. The fact that Israel has been reluctant to draw back from its position that its actions were legal, created an inevitable and prolonged diplomatic crisis with significant geopolitical and geostrategic implications, even thought the economic relations of the two states seem not only to be remaining at the same levels but also increasing.
In light of the above, it is easier to comprehend Israel’s need for a regional economic and strategic vent keeping also in mind the fluid situation in the Middle East and the Arab World because of the revolt and beyond. Israel seems to have found this vent, at least temporarily, in Cyprus and Greece. There is therefore, for Israel, the need for the exploitation and exportation of its natural gas to the western markets, and the need to increase its geostrategic power thus counterbalancing Turkey as well as other regional threats, like Iran. To that end it has signed, or is in the process of signing, agreements both with Cyprus and Greece. These agreements consider matters like military cooperation (with Greece), co-exploitation of the natural gas and cooperation in the sector of electrical power (EuroAsia Interconnector), while Israel has also proposed cooperation in the sectors of disaster management with the potential participation of Romania and Bulgaria.
The geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic needs of Israel converge, at this juncture, with Cyprus’ need for the support of its efforts to bring out its natural gas from “Block 12” and the initiation of the second round of explorations in the rest of the “Block 12” of its EEZ, since the second round of licensing is complete. Israel’s needs also converge with Greece’s need for balancing against the Turkish power and its efforts to avert the status quo that Turkey tries to impose in the Aegean, especially since the recent proclamation of the illegal explorations that will be undertaken by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO), off Turkish maritime boarders, near the Greek Island Kastelorizo. Further, indicative of the common interests and worries that the three states have in the region, especially with regard to Greece and Israel, was the military aeronautic and antisubmarine exercise that the US, Israel, and Greece had together in April, 2012, in the Eastern Mediterranean, close to Kasterlorizo. Important fact was also the recent simulated engagement between Israeli and Turkish warplanes within Cyprus’ FIR, over the occupied territories, as it highlights once more the crisis between Turkey and Israel, while it is indicative of Israel’s recognition of RoC’s sovereign rights.
Unquestionably the multileveled cooperation of the three states, as well as its gradual integration, is a fact. At least for the time being the interests of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece seem that are being served by the creation the “axis” in question. Moreover, this cooperation/alliance clearly bothers Turkey and challenges its plans in the Eastern Mediterranean, and especially in Cyprus. Nonetheless both Cyprus and Greece should be careful and guarded regarding their cooperation with Israel in the sense that they must not see Tel-Aviv as the ultimate rescue board for their geopolitical problems, nor should they see it as a stable and long-term ally. After all, Israel’s national security culture suggests the formation of the best alliance possible for the best countering of the regional security threats, depending on the needs of any given time period. From that perspective a possible reconciliation with Turkey – if something like that were to happen – would probably serve Israel’s interests better, especially in relation to the Iranian threat.
Conclusively, while Cyprus and Greece are on the right track with regard to their cooperation with Israel, they should, at the same time, develop other diplomatic relations in the region as well (as the RoC has started doing) emphasizing the importance of themselves and their relations for the states of the European Union (EU). Thus, the developing axis “Israel-Cyprus-Greece” as well as other possible bilateral collaborations of Cyprus and Greece in the region will not be perceived by the EU as “a shift toward the East” that neglects the European partners, but rather as a proactive foreign policy at the southeastern boarder of EU which will, in the medium/long-term, have positive economic, energy, and politico-diplomatic results for the Union. Finally, such a sophisticated strategic planning is necessary first because of the complexity of the regional international relations and also because of the alternatives that it would offer to Greece and Cyprus in the case that Israel were to withdraw from the “axis” for whatever reason.
Translated by the author from the Greek version, which appeared on www.strategyinternational.org. Zenonas Tziarras is a PhD Candidate in Politics & International Studies at the University of Warwick, UK, and a Junior Research Scholar at the think-tank Strategy International, in the Programme “Peripheral and Global Governance & Relations with Turkey”.