Shimon Peres and the roots of Cypriot-Israeli friendship

There are many reasons for the dramatic uptick in ties between Jerusalem and Nicosia–an uptick reflected in now yearly summits between the leaders of Cyprus, Israel and Greece.

SHIMON PERES smiles during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SHIMON PERES smiles during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NICOSIA – When the European Union’s foreign ministers met last Tuesday in Brussels for their monthly meeting, they decided to discuss the situation in Gaza over lunch.
This discussion took place a day before the worst barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza since 2014 and, in response, the most intensive Israeli pounding of Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions since Operation Protective Edge that same year.
One of the reasons the Gaza discussions were held over lunch is because this is a more informal forum in the monthly meeting – a discussion that doesn’t necessitate the release afterward of a statement. And one of the reasons the ministers did not want to issue a statement, The Jerusalem Post has learned, is because the EU does not have a unified approach to Gaza.
This was clearly evident last month when the United Nations Human Rights Council voted in favor of setting up a committee of inquiry to investigate events on March 14 that led to the killing of more than 60 Palestinians during riots near the Gaza security border.
Of the eight EU countries on the 45-country body, three voted against Israel and in favor of establishing the committee: Slovenia, Spain and Belgium. Five others – Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and the United Kingdom – abstained, which Jerusalem considers almost as good as a vote on its behalf.
One EU country not on the council, but which would have likely abstained – if voting patterns of the last several years are a good indicator and which Israel increasingly turns to when it needs helps battling unfriendly resolutions inside the EU – is Cyprus.
Cyprus was not one of those countries at the EU luncheon that wanted to censure Israel, a reflection of the dramatic change in ties between Nicosia and Jerusalem that has taken place in the last decade. Thirty years ago it would have been Cyprus – not Ireland, Spain, Sweden or Belgium, as it is today – which would have been leading the sharp criticism of Israel.
There are many reasons for the dramatic uptick in ties between the two Mediterranean Sea neighbors – an uptick reflected in now-yearly summits between the leaders of Cyprus, Israel and Greece.
Some attribute it to the discovery of natural gas in the last decade in the eastern Mediterranean, and the economic interests both countries have in cooperating to extract and ship that gas.
Others attribute it to the dramatic souring of Israel’s relations with Turkey following the elections in 2002 that brought Recep Tayyip Erdogan into power, first as prime minister and then as president.
According to this thinking, Israel’s relations with Turkey’s historic rivals – Greece and Cyprus, and to a lesser extent Bulgaria and Romania – picked up significantly as Israel’s relations with Turkey were seriously deteriorating.
But Andreas Mavroyiannis, a senior Cypriot diplomat – whose roles over the years in his country’s foreign service included ambassadorships to Ireland, France, the EU and the UN – has a different take on the situation.
Sitting in his office in a modest building near the Foreign Ministry in the divided Cypriot capital, Mavroyiannis – who currently heads the Greek Cypriot team in the now-fro- zen talks with Turkey over a resolution to the “Cyprus problem” – said that Cyprus’s then-president Glafcos Clerides pushed for a fundamental change in the relations between the two countries after he was elected in 1993.
Cyprus was for many years a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, Mavroyiannis said, where decisions always had a kind of automatic nature to them. “The Non-Aligned Movement was pro-Palestinian, so everyone had to follow. You didn’t put your own thinking into this.”
Clerides analyzed Cyprus strategic interests and came to a different conclusion, Mavroyiannis said. This decision received a huge boost a year later, when Cyprus was engaged in accession talks with the EU, an organization it formally joined in 2004.
“In 1994, Cyprus was trying to persuade European states to agree to our joining the EU,” said Mavroyiannis, who was actively involved as a diplomat in these efforts. “There were a lot of reservations, mainly because of the problems we have with Turkey. I remember this very well. In December 1994, we had a meeting in Budapest. It was a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. Shimon Peres, who was then the foreign minister, was there.”
According to Mavroyiannis, Alecos Michaelides, the Cypriot foreign minister at the time, with whom he was working, approached Peres and asked for his help with some of the European countries which had reservations about Cyprus joining the union.
“Shimon came to us and said, ‘I am going to help, but let me tell you something – I am not going to help on this only for you. I am doing this for me and my country, because with the accession of Cyprus [to the EU] we bring Israel closer to Europe, and Europe closer to Israel.’” Mavroyiannis said that Peres asked him to prepare some talking points on the matter, which were sent to Jerusalem the next day.
“In January 1995, we were going around again to persuade everyone about the accession of Cyprus, and wherever we went, everyone told us that Shimon Peres called and asked us to do this,” he said.
That month, US assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke came to Cyprus to discuss the matter.
“In the course of the meeting, he said to my minister that I came to announce a change of policy regarding the ascension of Cyprus – from now on we are going to support it. Shimon Peres called and asked me do this,” Mavroyiannis quoted Holbrooke as saying.
Peres’s support for the accession of Cyprus “strengthened us at a crucial moment when others were having objections,” he said. “Peres absolutely had an impact. I know what I am talking about, and was in all the meetings with everyone.”
Peres’s intervention took place in 1995, at a time when Israel enjoyed strong, fruitful relations with Turkey – something that strengthens those who argue that Israeli-Cypriot ties would be as strong as they are now even had Erdogan not come to power in 2002 and poisoned Israeli-Turkish relations.
“I don’t think Israel has chosen Cyprus over Turkey,” he said. “Israel has a policy of having good relations wherever possible; it is not a zero-sum game. And we also don’t feel that if Israel is our friend, they have to cut their ties with Turkey, though of course sometimes at some level you have to choose. There is enough space for good relations with Cyprus and with Turkey, provided that you respect and understand the other.”
Long gone, Mavroyiannis made clear, are the days when relations with Israel complicate a country’s ties with other countries, such as Arab states – many of which themselves have relations with Israel under the radar screen.
“Is it bad to have good relations with Israel?” The Cypriot diplomat asked rhetorically. “No, it is very good. Take the Arab countries: Not only do they respect that we have close relations with Israel, but they try to use it, and to use us in the middle.”
On this, however, Mavroyiannis would not provide any particulars.