NICOSIA – With Turkey warning Cyprus Thursday not to explore or develop its offshore gas reserves, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Demetris Christofias pledged at a joint press conference to enhance cooperation in the energy field.

Netanyahu, however, danced around the question of whether Israel would provide security for the Cypriot gas field in its exclusive economic zone, which lies close to Israeli natural-gas deposits.

Both Christofias and Netanyahu denied that Israel was asking Cyprus for use of its Paphos air base. “This item was not even on the agenda,” Christofias said.

The countries signed a bilateral search-and-rescue agreement, but Israeli officials denied that it had any military significance, and that the agreement only dealt with assistance the two countries would give one another in a time of crisis.

Cyprus sent a plane and helicopter to help Israel fight the Mount Carmel Forest fire in December 2010, and Israel sent generators to Cyprus after an explosion last year knocked out the country’s main power plant.

One official, denying this was a military agreement in camouflage, said Israel has the same kind of agreement with Turkey.

In addition to meeting Christofias, Netanyahu also met during his one-day trip – the first ever to the island by an Israeli prime minister – with Cyprus Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, and opposition head Nicos Anastassiades.

Even though the issue of gas exploration and cooperation was the main item on the agenda, Turkey hovered over the meeting, with Christofias slamming the country’s threats a number of times during the press conference. Netanyahu did not mention Turkey once.

Israel’s relations with Cyprus, as well as with Greece, skyrocketed with the sharp deterioration in Israel’s ties with Turkey, although Israeli officials said the reason for the dramatic change was not only Turkey, but also economic and other mutual interests. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has spoken in the past about a regional alliance that includes Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria.

Netanyahu praised the Cypriot president, Europe’s only Communist head of state, for developing relations with Israel, and said that it took 63 years to make the 45-minute flight from Israel to Cyprus.

“We came here to develop bilateral economic ties in the field of energy, and we are interested in developing them for the benefit of our countries and the region as a whole,” Netanyahu said. “We have no ulterior motives or hidden motives, this is our motive and what we want: peaceful mutual relations for the benefit and prosperity of our people and the region.”

Christofias said that Israeli- Cypriot cooperation should not be seen as a threat to anyone.

This cooperation only serves the “people and progress,” he said. “It is not Cyprus that threatens Turkey, but Turkey that is threatening Cyprus. We will continue to cooperate, and the true troublemaker is Turkey, not the Israel- Cyprus relationship.”

Christofias called on the international community “and especially the European Union to send a strong message to Turkey that it must stop violating and start respecting international law – especially if it looks forward to becoming a member of the European family.”

Christofias was responding to Turkey’s threat not to proceed with a second round of licensing for offshore oil and gas in its exclusive economic zone.

While Israel has made huge gas discoveries in its waters, Cyprus is only beginning to discover fields, something that is infuriating the Turks because they argue that any natural resources found off Cyprus should be split with the northern part of the country, which it has occupied since 1974.

“We’ve had seven drills in Israel, and seven hits, and there are still some 50 other plots,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s gas finds.

“You are now exploring your potential reserves,” he said to the Cypriot president. “Our view is that if we can cooperate, the sum of the parts would be greater than the individual parts.”

Netanyahu said Israel and Cyprus agreed to conduct feasibility studies regarding ways to cooperate, and that the reports should be ready in eight weeks.

Among the issues still to be determined is whether a gas-processing plant would be built in Cyprus for export of gas westward to Europe, or rather in Israel – possibly near Eilat – for export eastward, to Asia.

During his visit, Netanyahu met with Yonatan, a security guard at the embassy with whom he spoke to a number of months ago in Cairo when Yonatan protected the embassy from a mob that ransacked it.

During that incident, Yonatan – who feared that he would not come out alive – asked Netanyahu to speak to his parents directly if anything happened to him.

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