Expert pegs Israel to point Turkey-Cyprus gas talks

Turkish energy expert: Israel could serve as silent broker in Turkey-Cyprus natural gas revenue deal.

June 7, 2013 00:56
Ahmet Han

Ahmet han 370. (photo credit: courtesy)

Israel could play a pivotal role in alleviating the tension brewing between Turkey and Cyprus over eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons by entering as a “silent broker” in a special commission that would negotiate natural gas revenue sharing, a Turkish energy expert told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Although Cyprus is a European Union member state recognized by the international community, Turkey does not acknowledge the country’s existence and has held a military occupation of the northeastern portion of the island since 1983.

Known commonly as “North Cyprus,” this section of the island is recognized only by Turkey as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, would like to see a unification of the entire island under the Cypriot government.

The increasingly significant natural gas discoveries along Cyprus’s shores have thereby added fuel to a long-burning fire, as Turkey claims that a share of these resources belong to North Cyprus.

Israel could be instrumental in easing this strain – both over hydrocarbon allocations and perhaps toward a “final settlement” between the two entities – if the country would step in as a quiet middleman to help negotiate a profit-sharing agreement, Dr. Ahmet Han of Kadir Has University’s international relations faculty told the Post.

While ending the political conflict between Cyprus and Turkey would be optimal, an agreement on natural gas could occur without requiring Turkey to recognize Cyprus as a state or requiring Cyprus to recognize the Turkish portion of the island as independent, Han stressed.

Han sat down with the Post on Thursday following a speech he delivered at a conference titled “Natural Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean – Economic Impacts and Strategic Implications,” held at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Turkey objects to Cypriot exploration on its western shores due to the fact that Turkey deems a portion of these areas to be in its own continental shelf and another section to belong to Egypt, Han explained to conference participants on Thursday. Any Turkish opposition over Cypriot exploration in its eastern waters comes only from the idea that Turkey objects to Cyprus’s sovereign right as a country to claim these resources, he said.

While Israel has yet to solidify an export policy for its own natural gas reserves, Turkish leaders have lately urged Israel to consider exporting gas to both Turkey and Europe through a Turkish pipeline.

Israel’s apology to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident may not have “turned the tables totally” in the countries’ relationship, but it has reminded Turkish officials that the two neighbors have many mutual interests in the current time period, Han told the Post.

The Cypriot government, on the other hand, has approved the future construction of a liquefied natural gas plant on the island in Vesilikos, which the country hopes Israel will see as the preferred path for export to both Europe and Asia.

In a recent interview with the Turkish English-language newspaper Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz declared that the best solution for the region would be for both Cyprus and Israel to export their gas through a pipeline passing through Turkey.

Responding to this suggestion, Cypriot Ambassador to Israel Dimitris Hatziargyrou told the Post last week that no such cooperation between Turkey and Cyprus could even be considered until a normalization process between the two states occurred.

The first option toward achieving normalization, according to Hatziargyrou, would be a “confidence building measure” for the disputed city of Famagusta. The second, he explained, would be an adherence to the Ankara Protocol, which would mean Turkey opening up its ports to all EU planes and ships.

Han, however, said he felt that an agreement on natural gas revenue sharing between the two sides could be the very tool that could lead toward normalization.

Such an agreement could also allow for the transport of both Israeli and Cypriot gas through a Turkish pipeline, even without Turkey fully recognizing Cyprus’s existence as a country, he explained.

Israel’s participation in such a deal would solidify its relationship with Turkey and “transform the international relations” between the two neighbors, Han said.

Should Israel decide that it is interested in exporting gas through the Turkish option, another impetus for taking part in such a process would be the additional Cypriot gas flowing through that pipeline, according to Han.

“Involving Cyprus makes the project more feasible, the regional environment more secure and the relationship between Turkey and Israel much more integrated,” he said.

Reiterating that the two countries would not necessarily have to recognize each other, Han explained that a special commission guided by Israel could grant each party certain rights.

Admittedly, he acknowledged, this would not necessarily “be something that looks like the standard of international law.”

Countering assertions that a pipeline exporting Israeli gas through Turkey could be risky due to political instability or targeted terrorism, Han said he was confident that nothing like this would happen in Turkey.

Although Turkish feelings are often tied up in the Palestinian question, the sentiment “is never in animosity” toward Israel, he stressed.

A relationship based on hydrocarbons between the two countries would be even more sustainable than a relationship based on mutual security interests, Han added.

If the current situation prevails and Cypriot natural gas explorations continue in today’s pattern, Han predicted that “Turkey will do anything to make this not work,” and that the country has enough international leverage to do so – particularly along the Cypriot western shores.

For example, “if the Turkish navy was out there doing constant patrols,” companies exploring in the contested areas could be scared away, he explained.

“I’m not saying that this will escalate into a full-scale war,” Han said. “The Greek Cypriots will try to involve everyone, including Israel, and it would be irredeemable for them to be involved in such an act.”

Israel’s participation as a “silent broker,” however, could “definitely lead to a new era of stability and cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean,” he stressed.

“Likewise, if this opportunity is managed badly, it would be one of the new sources of tension in the eastern Mediterranean – especially as far as the Turkish-Cypriot relationship is concerned,” Han added. “That would be much more serious than the Mavi Marmara.”

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