Netanyahu with Cyprus' Christofias 390.
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO)
NICOSIA – Perhaps the most striking element of the press conference Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held here Thursday with Cypriot President Demetris
Christofias was that Netanyahu did not mention Turkey once.
meeting that preceded the press conference was between the Israeli and Cypriot
leaders, Turkey was the massive absent presence – the shadow that hovered
unmistakenly above the room.
Christofias felt this presence – how could
he miss it? Ankara warned him Thursday against exploring for gas off Cyprus’
shores, and scheduled, but did not carry out, a live-fire naval maneuver near
the site of where the country is searching for gas.
During the press
conference the Cypriot leader slammed Turkey, first calling on the international
community and the EU to send a message to Ankara to stop violating international
law, and then saying “it is not Cyprus that threatens Turkey, but Turkey that is
threatening Cyprus. We will continue to cooperate [with Israel], and the true
trouble-maker is Turkey, not the Israel-Cyprus relationship.”
had ample opportunity to slam Turkey; Christofias gave him many openings,
perhaps even wanted him to say something. But Netanyahu – unlike Turkish leaders
who seldom miss an opportunity to lob rhetorical broadsides at Israel – chose to
Netanyahu’s overall message was that the burgeoning love
affair between Israel and Cyprus – a country that just five years ago was
considered one of the most hostile to Israel in Europe – has to do with Israel
and Cyprus, not Turkey. There are enough common interests that bring the two
countries together, he intimated, without having to bring in a common
Which, obviously, paints only half the picture.
discovery of massive gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean shared by the two
countries played a large part in bringing Jerusalem and Nicosia together –
shared economic interests is a powerful catalyst in forging alliances. But so
too are common enemies.
While the way Christofias spoke about Turkey left
no question that he indeed views Turkey, which has occupied part of the island
since 1974, as an enemy, Netanyahu diplomatically chose not to mention Ankara –
keeping the door ajar for the hope of some eventual reconciliation.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan not healthy, and senior Cypriot officials
saying he is on his way to the US to undergo medical treatment, Turkey could
very well be on the cusp of major internal changes. With that a possible
scenario, Israel has no interest in slamming the door in Turkey’s
Yet, things have changed dramatically since Erdogan berated
President Shimon Peres in Davos in January 2009 for Operation Cast Lead, and the
Turks sent the Mavi Marmara on its ill-fated blockade-bashing mission to Gaza in
2010. And one thing Netanyahu’s visit showed was the rapidity with which Israel
was able to look at the new situation and adjust accordingly.
cowering before Turkey’s bellicose behavior and bemoaning an important
relationship lost, Israel looked for creative ways to counterbalance Turkey. And
Jerusalem found it in Turkey’s historic adversaries: Greece and Cyprus, as well
as Romania, Bulgaria and – increasingly – Croatia.
Everyone realizes that
Israel lost a huge strategic asset with Turkey, a strategic asset that neither
Cyprus, Greece or the Balkan countries can replace. Still, if – borrowing an
American football metaphor – Israel lost 10 years in losing Turkey, it has
picked up five or six yards with the the new regional alliance growing in the
eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
Does it get Israel back to the
line of scrimmage? No. But it is a whole lot better than a total
Netanyahu did not have to mention Turkey in his remarks.
very visit to Cyprus – the first ever by an Israeli prime minister – did it for
Turkey, through its threats and planned naval maneuver on Thursday,
sent a message to Israel and Cyprus that Ankara is a major actor in the eastern
Mediterranean that can’t be ignored.
And Netanyahu, just by being in
Nicosia, sent a message back: We hear you, but Israel will do what it feels it
must to promote its strategic and economic interests – despite what Turkey might