Israel gains strategic depth in Eastern Mediterranean

The Trilateral Declaration between Cyprus, Israel and Greece issued in Nicosia on January 28 at a summit meeting of the three regional states shifts the tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (center), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shake hands at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Thursday

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (center), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras shake hands at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Jan. 28

The Declaration agreed between the president of Cyprus Nikos Anastasiades, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras commits the three countries “to strengthen the cooperation… in order to promote a trilateral partnership in different fields of common interest and to work together towards promoting peace, stability, security and prosperity in the Mediterranean and the wider region”.

Surveying the “fluid and unstable situation in the region”, the Declaration invokes the “common democratic values, interests and principles” of the three countries and underscores their agreement regarding the “importance for cooperation and a coordinated set of policies” among them.

Although wide-ranging cooperation covering diverse fields has been mentioned in the Declaration, the core area is energy cooperation, with the three countries developing trilateral energy projects to develop the vast hydrocarbon reserves that have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean in the seas belonging to Israel and Cyprus.

The flag carrier of energy cooperation will be the EastMed Pipeline project (from Israel and Cyprus via Greece) that will help export the East Mediterranean gas to the European market.

In a master-stroke of regional diplomacy, Israel is using its vast gas reserves to build an alliance system in the Eastern Mediterranean that has far-reaching strategic implications.

No sooner was the Declaration unveiled in Nicosia than US Vice-President Joe Biden called up Netanyahu and Anastasiades. Biden urged Netanyahu to seek normalization in Israel-Turkey relations, while he promised Anastasiades all US support for a speedy settlement of the Cyprus problem with Turkey.

On the one hand, the US is apprehensive that the emerging trilateral alliance in the East Mediterranean might annoy Turkey and complicate Washington’s efforts to navigate the war against the Islamic State and to advance a settlement in Syria, where Ankara’s cooperation becomes vital.

On the other hand, Noble Energy is involved in exploring and developing the gas fields in both Israel and Cyprus and the energy projects coming up will bring lucrative business. In political terms too, encouraging Europe to diversify its energy sources and to cut down the heavy dependence on Russian supplies has been a longstanding US objective.

Although the Declaration issued in Nicosia vows that it is not aimed at any outside party, the fact of the matter is that all three countries – Israel, Greece and Cyprus – have troubled relations with Turkey. Turkey’s ties with Greece have been historically fraught with animosities and the Cyprus problem (unification of Cyprus) does not easily lend itself to a solution.

It is possible to say that the new alliance with Greece and Cyprus constitutes an Israeli rebuff to Turkey. At the very least, in the face of repeated overtures recently by Ankara to Tel Aviv to patch up the frayed relationship between the two countries, Netanyahu is signaling that Israel is getting along just fine and is in no tearing hurry.

On the contrary, if one of the Turkish calculations in making such overtures to Israel was to tap into Israeli gas reserves and thereby cut down on its heavy dependence on Russian supplies, Israel is instead prioritizing the EastMed Pipeline heading to the European market. Ironically, Gazprom has decided to increase the price of gas supplied to the Turkish private sector.

It cannot be lost on Turkey that Israel, Cyprus and Greece are also countries with close friendly ties with Russia. Moscow has evinced keen interest in the development of the Israeli gas fields in the East Mediterranean.

In principle, EastMed Pipeline could also help connect Syria and the Kurdish regions with the European market. To be sure, the EastMed Pipeline project is getting a head start over any definite plans by Iran yet to access Europe’s gas market. Thus, Israel’s brilliant ‘gas diplomacy’ becomes a many-splendored thing. The trilateral energy alliance between Israel, Cyprus and Greece completely resets the ABC of energy politics in the region.

Within the trilateral energy alliance, Israel will be the pivotal partner, and a regional powerhouse. Israel’s diplomatic options are multiplying just when the country looked isolated regionally following the humiliating defeat it suffered in trying to stop the Iran nuclear deal.

A rare opportunity is coming Israel’s way to shift the locus of its regional strategies, which was traditionally riveted on its military superiority, to geopolitical clout. It is a potential game changer at a juncture when new regional alignments are forging in the Middle East following the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Put differently, Israeli diplomacy has got off to a flying start while other regional powers are pondering about the adjustments required of them in the new power dynamic in the region.

To be sure, the alliance with Greece gives Israel much-needed strategic depth. (By the way, Greece is only the second country other than the US with which Israel has signed a ‘status of forces agreement’.)

Looking ahead, the trilateral alliance gives Israel more space to negotiate with not only the US and the European countries but also with Russia. It is acquiring the wherewithal to pursue genuinely independent foreign policies and also the leverage to influence other countries’ policies. Israel can now hope to negotiate the normalization with Turkey from a position of advantage.

The reports from Athens and Nicosia suggest that the two capitals intend to play an influential role in strengthening relations between the European Union and Israel.

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