Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s historic trip Thursday to Cyprus – the first by an Israeli prime minister – is being presented by many as a direct result of Israel’s deteriorating relations with Turkey.

Seeking to avoid offending Turkey – which invaded the northern half of Cyprus in 1974 and is hostile to the Greek-allied south – Israel was traditionally wary of cultivating relations with Nicosia. However, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic AKP party has gradually but steadily moved away from Kemal Ataturk’s secularist policies and Western orientation toward an alignment with Arab neighbors and the terrorist organization Hamas, seemingly as part of an anachronistic obsession with reinstating the old Ottoman Empire.

Israel, in response, began to strengthen its relations with Cyprus and Greece and reconsider its position on the Armenian and Kurdish national movements. This explanation is only partially correct. While the deterioration of relations with Turkey was undoubtedly a catalyst, warming relations with Cyprus are part of a larger reorientation of Israeli foreign policy. Even before May 2010’s Mavi Marmara fiasco, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman had launched a concerted effort to reengage with numerous countries that had fallen out of close relations with Jerusalem.

If since the 1993 Oslo Accords inordinate diplomatic effort was concentrated on the Washington-Ramallah track, under Liberman the Foreign Ministry began to focus more energies on cultivating closer ties with Balkan countries such as Bulgaria, Bosnia and Greece – not principally as a counter-weight to the weakening ties with Ankara, but as a wider change in foreign policy strategy. More effort is also being made to strengthen ties with Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, China and India.

Our fast-developing relations with Cyprus are also fostered by mutual fossil energy interests. The Cyprus Energy Regulatory Authority, the country’s national energy company and two Israeli firms – Delek Drilling and Avner Oil Exploration – hold shares in Texas-based Noble Energy, an oil and gas exploration firm. Noble has been leading exploration and exploitation of oil and gas reserves under the Mediterranean Sea in areas delineated in a December 2010 agreement between Jerusalem and Nicosia as part of the two countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones. Tamar, the world’s largest gas find in 2009, and Leviathan, an even bigger gas field, will supply all our domestic needs and provide significant export revenues as well.

Further consolidating the ties between Cyprus and Israel has been Turkish belligerence. Ankara, in the name of the Turkish-occupied northern half of Cyprus, and Lebanon, backed by the Shi’ite terrorist organization Hezbollah, have laid unjustified claims to the oil and gas findings. On November 23, for instance, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz claimed that Israeli and Cyprian gas and oil explorations in the eastern Mediterranean were illegal and questioned the Exclusive Economic Zones demarcated by the two countries. In September 2011, Erdogan said that Turkey “will take appropriate steps” and “prevent unilateral exploitation by Israel of natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean.”

In mid-September, Turkey sent three naval ships to “protect” a Norwegian boat hired by the Turkish government to conduct gas explorations in the territorial waters of the Republic of Cyprus. And on December 21, 2011, Turkish warships demonstratively shelled the strip of water dividing the Israeli Leviathan and Cyprian Bloc 12 gas fields.

Israel and Cyprus cannot simply cave in to Turkish bullying. Indeed, neither seems to be doing so. Cypriot President Demetris Christofias said Thursday during a press conference with Netanyahu: “I call upon 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.”

And while Netanyahu was silent on Turkish aggression during his Cyprus visit, Israel has deployed drones and unmanned marine vehicles, equipped with night vision devices, radars and multiple launch systems, to protect its drilling platforms. And the cancellation on December 22 of the $90 million sale to the Turkish Air Force of Elbit’s hi-tech surveillance system was interpreted by some as timed to send a signal to Ankara to stop its campaign of harassment in and around Israel’s gas fields.

Under the circumstances it is important that Israel continue to develop strong ties with both Cyprus and Greece. Netanyahu’s unprecedented visit to Cyprus is a integral part of that endeavor.

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