Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis told Army Radio Wednesday that Turkey has initiated military exercises aimed at threatening both Israel and Cyprus.

She added that the move was an attempt to assert control over natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean, claiming that Turkey was displaying criminal behavior.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is set to travel to Cyprus Thursday for a one-day visit – the first time an Israeli prime minister has ever visited the island, just a 30-minute flight from Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu’s trip shows the degree to which relations with Cyprus, which until four years ago was considered among the most hostile countries to Israel in Europe, have dramatically improved.

Now, one diplomatic official said, Cyprus is seen as an important regional partner for Israel, and together with Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, it is viewed as a part of a regional alliance serving to counterbalance Turkey. As was the case with Greece, Israel’s ties with Cyprus began to blossom as Jerusalem’s relationship with Turkey deteriorated over the last four years.

Jerusalem sees Cyprus – geographically the closest European country to Israel – as a possible bridge to Europe, especially in regard to energy issues.

Energy, and possible cooperation on developing natural gas deposits in each country’s exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean, is also expected to be among Netanyahu’s main topics of discussion during his visit.

One idea on the agenda is the possibility of building a gas pipeline to Cyprus, from which the gas could then be exported elsewhere in Europe. The Delek energy company is interested in a partnership with Cyprus to build a facility where gas from both countries could be processed and sent farther abroad.

Cyprus’s interest in developing its off-shore natural gas deposits has created a great deal of tension with Turkey.

Last summer, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned of a “necessary response” if Cyprus went ahead with its development plans.

Turkey, which has occupied northern Cyprus since 1974, claims Cyprus does not have the right to exploit the island’s natural resources and that it cannot ignore the Turkish-Cypriot rights to those resources.

Earlier in the month, Cyprus media reported that Israel will ask Cyprus to station Israel Air Force fighter jets at a military facility on the island. It is possible that Israel is seeking to establish the base to be able to more effectively protect the growing number of gas fields it is discovering in the Mediterranean Sea.

It is unclear if the request will be to station a permanent presence on the island or to establish a base that can provide logistical support for the IAF during operations in the region.

According to the report in the Famagusta Gazette, the talks are currently at an “exploratory stage” regarding the possibility of using the Andrea Paendreou airbase in Paphos, in southwestern Cyprus. The base reportedly used to host Greek F-16s.

Cyprus played a key role last year in Israel’s efforts to thwart a protest flotilla that wanted to set sail for Gaza, consistently refusing to let those ships set sail from its ports.

The European country also quickly sent a helicopter and plane to Israel in December 2010 to help fight the Carmel Forest fire. Last July, Israel reciprocated by dispatching 10 generators to the island to relieve an electricity shortage caused when confiscated Iranian armaments at a navy base exploded and knocked out one of the country’s main power stations.

Herb Keinon and Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.

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