NICOSIA, Cyprus – “It would have been unimaginable several years ago,” was a statement that could be heard often throughout Wednesday’s Israel-Hellenic Forum meetings in Nicosia. The forum brought together ambassadors, diplomats, exporters and officials from Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
These three countries are rapidly becoming close partners and allies. One thing that many attendees noted in their presentations was how rapidly the region has changed in recent years and the last decades. What this means is that Israel, Cyprus and Greece are now much closer than in the past, while Israel also has new Gulf partners. Cyprus and Greece share a language and history, but Israel and Greece especially did not always have as warm relations as they have now.
The speakers drew attention to a wider integration that brings stability to a region that stretches from Europe across the Eastern Mediterranean to Israel, Egypt and Jordan and then onward to the Gulf and India. There are some challenges though. While Israel and Turkey may be improving relations, Ankara still appears to be hostile to Cyprus. As well, it remains unclear if Greece-Turkey relations will improve. In addition, Greece and Cyprus may not share Israel’s views on Iran. However, on important issues these countries do care about the US-led world order that emerged after the Cold War; they are democracies that are close to Europe and the West.
The Israel-Hellenic Forum was established by the B’nai B’rith World Center, with its first session in 2019. I attended the first sessions and have closely followed the growth of Israel, Cyprus and Greek ties in the last decade. This one was at the pleasant grounds of the University of Nicosia, 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.
While attendees tried not to make the talks about adversaries, rather about their common values and interests, the “elephant” of Turkey’s policies hovered in the room. Several years ago, Turkey was increasingly aggressive toward Greece and Cyprus, as well as threatening toward Israel. Turkey also sent forces to Libya and tried to create tensions over economic zones off the coast of Cyprus and Greece.
This is of concern to Israel, which takes seriously the security of its EEZ off the coast. Plus, Israel also has new Sa’ar 6 ships to guard its waters, working with Egypt and Cyprus on energy policies, as well as Jordan, the Palestinians and Greece. The Russian invasion of Ukraine shone a stronger spotlight on this issue.
For many of the smaller and medium-sized countries in the world – such as Israel, Greece and Cyprus – the issue of the rules-based international order, such as countries not invading one another, is very important. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led many countries to rethink their defense policy. In addition, Turkey’s invasion of Syria and other actions also raise eyebrows. For instance, Ankara is blocking Sweden from joining NATO, which means that Greece, Israel and Cyprus prefer an international order anchored in the West, where they are not facing instability caused by Turkey, Russia or Iran’s actions.
However, the countries also wonder if US policy will remain firm and committed. While the US has an important role in the Eastern Mediterranean and may work within frameworks like joint military drills, countries now know they need to increase military procurement and work together on regional issues.
To that end, Marilena Raouna, director of the Diplomatic Office of the President of the Republic of Cyprus, discussed trilateral partnerships and strategic ties. Dr Elai Rettig, an assistant professor at the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, discussed possibilities for regional energy cooperation that could link the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf. National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi reiterated the importance of expanding regional peace and stability.
The meeting included important remarks from Lt.-Gen. Dimokritos Zervakis, chief of the National Guard of the Republic of Cyprus, discussed defense policy and the importance of bilateral drills with Israel and with other countries. Thanos Dokos, national security adviser to the prime minister of Greece, discussed the importance of building on the current Greece-Cyprus-Israel ties to create stronger relations between the three countries and expand this to other states that already share close partnerships with the three.
Questions remain about what comes next. While there are many positive winds blowing, the uncertainty remains about whether Ankara’s policy will shift towards dialogue; will Turkey embrace the new diplomatic regional era, reflected in how Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have welcomed Syria back, as well as through talks in Astana this week between Turkey, Iran and Russia?
On the other hand, other questions remain about how to build on existing Greece-Cyprus-Israel ties. Will the energy dreams of the countries be met with pipelines, electric grids or LNG or other initiatives, or will they stall? Will more joint military drills grow into regional drills, linked to a greater US role, or will the US begin to focus less on the Eastern Mediterranean?
Other issues remain, like climate change and the role of artificial intelligence. What the forum showed is that a unique partnership has been created, but it needs reinforcement and to advance to the next stage.