The ties that bind Israel, Greece, and Cyprus - analysis

The Israel-Hellenic Forum met in Nicosia on Monday, their third meeting since being established by the B’nai B’rith World Center.

 Attendees at the Israel-Hellenic Forum at University of Nicosia on June 20, 2023. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Attendees at the Israel-Hellenic Forum at University of Nicosia on June 20, 2023.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

A strategic shift has emerged over the last decade and a half as Israel, Greece, and Cyprus increasingly share interests and values. This was the major message from diplomats, experts, and academics on the first day in Cyprus that brought together a unique group of people from the three countries.

The Israel-Hellenic Forum reconvened in Nicosia in the evening on June 19. This was the third plenary session of the Forum since it was established by the B’nai B’rith World Center, with earlier sessions being held in Jerusalem in November 2019 and Athens in June of last year. 

The meeting in Cyprus took place in the capital of Nicosia at the University of Nicosia. It was organized with the  Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs at the University and the Institute of International Relations (IDIS) at Panteion University in Athens. A note was read from the President of the Republic of Cyprus Nikos Christodoulides at the beginning of the confab. 

Over the last few years Israel, Cyprus, and Greece have become key partners on a number of issues. Both Greece and Cyprus acquire Israeli defense technology. For instance, Elbit Systems has played a key role in an International Training Center in Greece and Cyprus also procures systems from Israel. Energy is a major focus these days as well. A panel on Tuesday was titled “The Cyprus Question, the Greco-Turkish Relations and the Prospect of Energy Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

In 2020 there was a push for an EastMed pipeline deal that would have seen a 1,900km pipeline built from near Israel to Europe. There have also been pushes for more electricity links in the region. The Energy Minister of Cyprus, George Papanastasiou was recently in Israel.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades meet for a trilateral summit in Jerusalem, in December. (credit: Raif Kotz/Reuters)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades meet for a trilateral summit in Jerusalem, in December. (credit: Raif Kotz/Reuters)

In addition, the Post reported over the weekend that Israel will work with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to develop the Gaza Marine gas field, across from the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Sunday. 

Ties between Israel and Cyprus

Energy and defense are only part of the ties that bind Israel to Greece and Cyprus. Diplomats at the forum also stressed that geography is important here as well.

Cyprus is close to Israel and Israel had to face the Mediterranean for many years because of the difficulty in achieving peace with the Arab states. After Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals there was still a cold era before the Abraham Accords.

Now everything is different. Cyprus and Greece play a key role alongside Egypt and the Gulf and the countries can be knitted together in various groups. Here the Negev Forum, which brings together Israel and numerous regional states, is important. I2U2, which brings together Israel, India, the UAE, and the US is also important.

In addition, trilateral meetings that bring together Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, either at the foreign minister or heads of state, or defense level, are increasingly important. The US is a key supporter of this group of three countries.  

For attendees, the first day of the event on Monday evening and Tuesday was a chance to get to see old friends and colleagues again. The initiative to bring together an Israel-Hellenic forum was part of the ecosystem that grew up around the sense that this partnership would become a strategic alliance. Israel has other strategic ties, such as with Azerbaijan and India.

The prophets of the partnership with Greece and Cyprus include academics and experts on both sides. There is a depth to this history that is also unique and which was mentioned at the forum.

Jews and Greeks have both been immigrant minority groups in the US. Historically Jews and Greeks also played a key role in the Mediterranean and building blocks of Western civilians.

These are ties that are very deep. Israel’s relations with Greece and Cyprus, however, were not always as close as they are today. In the old days, Israel had warm ties with Turkey and there were colder ties across the eastern Mediterranean. B’nai B’rith CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin discussed some of this important history on Monday during the opening of the forum. 

B’nai B’rith World Center Director Alan Schneider, who initiated the forum, said, “The Israel-Hellenic Forum Nicosia Plenary will undoubtedly be a watershed event, coming shortly after the general elections in Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. I have no doubt that together we will advance relationships between leading public figures and the public at large in the three liberal democracies of the Eastern Mediterranean.”  

Regional challenges

There are challenges in this region as well. The same geography that brings Israel naturally together with Greece and Cyprus has also underpinned the tensions with Turkey. Ankara has made numerous claims to areas of the sea off the coast of Cyprus and Greece that overlap with the rights of Cyprus and Greece to exclusive economic zones.

In addition in 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, creating a source of dispute that has not been resolved today. Cyrpus sees this as an occupation of the northern part of the island. In Nicosia where the confab took place, the dividing line on the island, manned by soldiers, was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel.

The walls of the old city of Nicosia were built by the Venetians with Italian engineers in 1567 and are impressive. Today the old city is still divided, much like Jerusalem would have been before 1967.

In the time between sessions of the forum, I wandered the old city, checking out a military surplus store and store H&M; the contrast between ancient and new in this city was clear. The Venetian walls were many meters thick, and set relatively low in the ground, like the walls of Acre.

They did not withstand the Ottoman siege of 1570. The British arrived in Cyprus in 1878 and in Ottoman Palestine in 1917. More than 50,000 Jews passed through Cyprus, often on the way to Israel, in displaced person camps after the Holocaust, an issue stressed at the Israel-Hellenic Forum.

This is a reminder of this island’s complex history which has commonalities with the same complexities Israel has faced and the rich history that ties the region together.