Analysis: Can Cyprus be a model for Middle East peace?

A problem with Avigdor Lieberman's thesis is that Cypriots view their situation as temporary

January 22, 2010 00:23
Turkish soldier opens door in temporary wall by UN

Turkish soldier opens door in temporary wall by UN. (photo credit: AP)


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As he toured a series of European capitals in May, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told his audience at a dinner party in Rome that he believed Cyprus - which was divided between its Greek and Turkish citizens in 1975, after years of bloodshed - was a fitting model for ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

We're interested in this," Lieberman said. "In Cyprus, it was the same situation as in Israel. Greeks and Turks were living together, and there was friction and tension and bloodshed."

Greeks and Turks did live together, for hundreds of years, on the island, but Ottoman and later British rule kept a lid on violence between the sides. When the British left in 1960, the groups united in what was then called the Republic of Cyprus.

But in 1963, the Turks were pushed out of that government, and the following 11 years were marked by incessant violence. The Turks say that Greek actions in their towns and villages constituted nothing less than a coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing.

On June 20, 1974, five days after a Greek Cypriot coup d'etat on the island, the Turkish army intervened - or invaded, depending on whom you ask - and pushed Greek forces back to the southern part of the island. A year later, the UN oversaw a population transfer - Greeks to the south and Turks to the north - completing the separation that lasts to this day.

And it was precisely this separation, Lieberman said, which had brought about peace and prosperity there. Now, he claimed in May, the Netanyahu government was basing its approach on the model provided by Cyprus.

But is Cyprus really a good example?

While the Greeks enjoy stability and international recognition, they continue to view the north as "occupied territory" that was "illegally invaded" by Turkey in 1974. Their motivation for a comprehensive agreement has been less robust than the Turks', if only because they don't need an agreement as much as do their neighbors to the north.

The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus goes unrecognized by every nation in the world except for Turkey, and has tough international restrictions on investors and developers that has local restaurants such as "Burger City" and "Pizza Hat" filling in for their original counterparts - since Burger King and Pizza Hut are not allowed to open branches, due to international embargoes.

Greece continues to use its EU membership and international weight to prevent the Turkish Cypriots from gaining international recognition, which would, first and foremost, allow the Turkish Cypriots to open their air and sea ports to international flights, a development that would render North Cyprus a formidable competitor for the island's main source of income, tourism. As of now, every flight into the north must come from Turkey.

Greek Cypriots are unsatisfied with the current situation, but have a Western standard of living that allows them to wait, while Turkish Cypriots decry their international isolation as unbearable. And while both sides have been negotiating a comprehensive agreement for years, it remains unattainable, for now.

Therefore, another problem with Lieberman's argument is that Cypriots themselves view their situation as a temporary one. Separation is viewed as a means to achieving a final, comprehensive agreement, not the end of the conflict.

While that agreement has historically been viewed through the prism of federation, an increasing number of Turkish Cypriots are awakening to the reality that such a deal could see Greek Cypriots return to the Turkish part of the island en masse, effectively ending Turkish autonomy there through demographics - an Israeli equivalent to a one-state solution.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post at a reception on Monday evening to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the 1974 Turkish "Peace Operation," Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat said, "Maybe your foreign minister was referring to the fact that there has been no violence here since 1974.

"With that I agree with him. But the central goal in North Cyprus is federation."

But when asked how Turkish demographic integrity would be maintained after federation, Talat said, "[Greek Cypriots] will be able to come here, but with restrictions. They will not be able to settle here freely."

Not only are Cypriots' wishes regarding their political fate different from those of Israelis and Palestinians, their conflict remains unresolved.

So could the Cyprus model be an example for Israel? And if so, is Lieberman referring to a 35-year-old military standoff as his vision for ending the conflict? Or is it simply a separation of two peoples, in which one is recognized, and the other is not?

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