Cyprus no longer sees Israel as an aggressive country imposing its will by force on the Palestinians, but rather as a small nation fighting for survival in the face of much greater odds, Averof Neophytou, head of the country’s center-right ruling party said on Monday.
Neophytou, also chairman of the Foreign and European Affairs Committee in the Cypriot House of Representatives, told The Jerusalem Post that over the last decade his country – once, alongside Greece, among the most critical of Israel in Europe – now has a “clearer picture” of the Jewish state.
“It is a country of eight million fighting a struggle for survival and having to face hundreds of millions of Muslims and Arabs, part of whom don’t even recognize the right of the existence of a Jewish state,” he said. “So which side is strong, and which side is weak? Which side is fighting for survival?” Neophytou, in the country for three days meeting senior officials including President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, said Cypriots now identify with Israel, since it too is a small country of 800,000 people struggling for its survival. Turkey, its massive neighbor to the north, has a population of about 75 million.
For years, he said, Cyprus had the “wrong perception of Israel,” partly because it was for so long an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement, before joining the EU in 2004.
“For decades Israel was blamed for creating the instability in the region, but can anyone credibly blame Israel for the instability in Syria, the threat of Islamic State, the Arab Spring that turned into an Arab winter, or the chaos in Libya and Iraq?” he said.
Neophytou said that the turning point came when both countries discovered natural gas in the late part of the last decade. He quoted former president Shimon Peres as telling him at the time that the find would immediately do what had been impossible for decades: bring the two countries close together.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met three times in the last five months with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, who are scheduled also to hold an historic trilateral meeting at month’s end with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Energy issues will provide much of the focus of that discussion, including how to w best extract and export natural gas: by marine pipeline to Turkey, which would need Cyprus’ approval; via pipeline from Cyprus to Turkey, or perhaps to Greece; or by building a liquefaction plant on shore.
Egypt, which has its own natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, is also a part of the conversation, and Greece, Cyprus and Egypt held a trilateral meeting of their own last month in Athens.
Neophytou said that the improvement in relations with Israel is not only at the political level, but has filtered down to public opinion. He said that if one were to ask the Cypriot public whether Israel was an enemy, friend, or credible partner, “the vast majority would say a credible partner.”
“That is a dramatic change,” he said, noting that Cyprus recently bought a naval vessel from Israel. “There were times decades ago, even in the 90s, when if during the public procurement process there was a consortium that included Jewish or Israeli participation, that would be a reason to exclude it,” he said.
Neophytou dismissed the assertion that ties were being strengthened with Israel as a result of Israel’s deteriorating ties with Turkey, though he did admit that once those ties began to unravel Cyprus and Israel began to look differently at one another.
Yet, he said, an improvement in Ankara, Jerusalem ties – if it comes about – will not come at the expense of the strong ties now being forged between Cyprus and Israel.
“We are mature enough to understand that our enemy should not be the enemy of our friends,” he said, also remarking at how Cyprus was trying hard to improve its relations with Turkey.
Cyprus, he said, provides Israel with badly needed strategic depth. “Cyprus is a friendly country and Israel could have access to it for many reasons: humanitarian, business, as an energy hub, and in other aspects,” he said, without going into details, but hinting at the security realm.
In addition, Cyprus could – and indeed does – facilitate better relations between Israel and Europe. “It is very important to have someone else speak up for you,” Neophytou said, adding that the Cypriot president indeed does this for Israel in EU forums.