When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Nicosia in 2016 with the president of Cyprus and the prime minister of Greece and hailed the establishment of a new strategic axis in the eastern Mediterranean, they stressed in a joint declaration that this alliance was not an exclusive club and that other countries were welcome to join.
On Friday another country did join: the United Arab Emirates, which no one covering that meeting five years ago would have dreamed would be the country to take up the invitation.
The UAE sent Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, to Paphos, Cyprus, to join the meeting with Foreign Minister Gadi Ashkenazi, his Cypriot counterpart, Nikos Christodoulides, and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. Gargash is a senior UAE diplomat who served for 13 years – until February – as the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
While Iran grabbed the headlines from that meeting – Ashkenazi highlighted the Islamic Republic in his public comments – another country was probably paying even closer attention to the meaning and significance of the parley: Turkey.
Ever since Israel signed the Abraham Accords in Washington in September with the UAE and Bahrain, the threat that Iran posed to Israel and the Gulf countries has widely been seen as the glue cementing those relationships.
While concern about Iran is a major regional concern that Israel has in common with the UAE, it is by no means the only one. The UAE is equally concerned about Turkey’s designs in the region, and the presence of Gargash at the Cyprus summit along with three other countries in the region most concerned about Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey sends a clear message to Ankara.
Ashkenazi in his public comments said that Israel would do whatever it takes to “prevent the extremist and antisemitic regime” in Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Not a word did he mention about Turkey, even though Ankara certainly was a topic of discussion.
As concerned as the UAE is about Iran, it is equally worried about Turkey. Two fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Asli Aydintasbas and Cinzia Bianco, wrote last month that by 2020 Turkey had emerged for the UAE as “a more significant rival” in the Mideast than any other regional player, including Iran. ABU DHABI, they wrote, viewed Iran as “having been weakened by both COVID-19 and sanctions under the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.”
Turkey, however, was throwing its weight around throughout the region, from Libya to Syria. Turkey and the UAE, they wrote, are engaged in a “decade-long feud that is reshuffling the geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa,” and that the two countries see each other as nothing less than “existential rivals” engaged in a “series of proxy wars between the Horn of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.”
The two countries, they wrote, have been on the opposite side of every regional conflict since 2011, including in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
The UAE’s joining Israel, Cyprus and Greece – whose trilateral alliance was born partly out of an interest in placing checks on Turkey – must be seen within the framework of the UAE-Turkish feud, and the mutual interest of the four countries to contain Ankara in the eastern Mediterranean and the region.According to Aydintasbas and Bianco, the origins of the UAE-Turkish rivalry goes back to the Arab uprising in the spring of 2011, when Ankara “saw [it] as an opportunity to not just rattle the ANCIEN power structure in the region but also expand its own influence. As friendly governments took office in Yemen, Tunisia, and Egypt, Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which is sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood – hoped that the new regional order would remodel the Arab world in the AKP’s own image, ushering in an era of Turkish-allied elected Sunni governments in lieu of secular elites or monarchies.”
All this rattled the Gulf monarchies who “faced limited internal opposition but saw the revolutionary tide in the region as a potential challenge to the authoritarian bargain in their own societies.” This concern was then compounded by Turkey’s cozy relationship with Qatar, as “the Emiratis feared that Ankara and Doha would position themselves at the heart of a region-wide Islamist network, and the UAE would be cornered.”
The battle lines were thus drawn. Relations between the two countries went into a tailspin in 2013, when the Egyptian army deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi and brought General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi into power, something that enraged Erdogan. Then three years later, there was an unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey that Erdogan blamed to a large extent on the UAE.
The UAE’s sharing the podium in Cyprus with the foreign ministers of Israel, Cyprus and Greece goes a long way toward cementing an anti-Turkey axis – although none of the partners would describe it as that – and is just the latest step in a quick diplomatic shift that Israel made following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, and the recognition in Jerusalem that Israel’s up-to-then strategic relationship with Turkey was over and would not be returning for a long time.
Following the breakdown of ties with Turkey, Jerusalem cultivated close ties with Turkey’s rivals in the region, primarily Greece and Cyprus, but also Balkan countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.
Israel lost an important strategic partner when the ties with Turkey fell apart, and in addition to losing a large market for its arms, it also lost the ability for the air force to train in Turkish airspace. On Sunday the Defense Ministry announced that Israel had just signed a $1.65 billion 20-year defense procurement deal with Greece – which more than compensates for lost military deals with Turkey – and its training problems for the air force has been solved by training in Greek skies.
The addition now of the UAE to an Israeli-Greek-Cypriot axis further demonstrates that not all is lost when one door closes in Israel’s regional relationships, and that it is possible – with creative thinking and common interests – to open up another.