Israel, Greece and Cyprus bringing order to region - opinion

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have established an efficient mode of regional cooperation since 2016.

 FOREIGN MINISTERS of Israel, Cyprus and Greece and a UAE presidential diplomatic adviser meet in Paphos, Cyprus in April. (photo credit: LAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTERS of Israel, Cyprus and Greece and a UAE presidential diplomatic adviser meet in Paphos, Cyprus in April.
(photo credit: LAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/REUTERS)

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have established an efficient mode of regional cooperation since 2016. Trilateral summits, at the heads of state level on down, enable the three countries to build a better understanding, reach agreements and shape the order in the Eastern Mediterranean in a manner that serves their interests. Progress since the first Nicosia meeting of January 2016 has been remarkable in defense, energy, cybersecurity, trade, tourism and the fight against antisemitism. During the corona crisis, at least in relatively calm periods from an epidemiological prism, Israel, Greece and Cyprus allow their citizens to travel with vaccination certificates and no other restrictions as they have recognized green passports.

Continuity matters. In that regard, the December Jerusalem trilateral summit – with the participation of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriot Prime Minister Nikos Anastasiades – is of high importance. It is the first time Israel is not represented by Benjamin Netanyahu as its premier after the recent election. Previous work constitutes a good omen, though. Last August, Israel helped Greece in the titanic battle against wildfires. After speaking with his Greek counterpart, Bennett approved the departure of two firefighting planes and 15 Israeli firefighters to assist in extinguishing the fires. This contribution is highly appreciated by Greek public opinion. Also in August, the meeting of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Nikos Dendias, and Nikos Christodoulides, was successful. Lapid even spoke about a “trilateral alliance.”

Looking at the general context, the Jerusalem trilateral summit is the first to take place under the US administration of President Joe Biden. While in the years of Donald Trump the Turkish posture in regional affairs, including in the Eastern Mediterranean, had been considered almost an anathema by Washington, the situation now appears different. Biden rather favors engagement with other actors, such as Turkey – without, of course, ignoring serious Turkish-American disagreements. Ankara itself has recently shown an appetite to improve ties with Israel and other countries such as Egypt and the UAE.

The East Med Gas Forum, the regional organization that functions as a platform of cooperation for gas producer, consumer and transit countries, does not yet include Turkey. Its eight members, namely Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, have forged a mutually accepted modus vivendi. The involvement of Turkey will perhaps be welcome, if it is determined to respect the rules set by the majority of participants. Its provocative and often illegal behavior, however, culminated in continuous drilling operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus, and has led it into isolation.

It is premature to conclude about a drastic metamorphosis of Turkish behavior. Ankara’s position on the Cyprus question, for example, and its support for a two-state solution, are rejected by the international community. A few weeks ago, Jerusalem, for its part, was furious about the detainment of two Israeli citizens in Ankara for taking photographs of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mansion. The ball is certainly in Turkey’s court. The East Med Gas Forum is not theoretically antithetical to its participation but already operates well without it.

 Natali and Mordi Oaknin on their way home to Israel after being released from jail in Turkey (credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY) Natali and Mordi Oaknin on their way home to Israel after being released from jail in Turkey (credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)

Another parameter that deserves attention is the zeal of France to play an instrumental security role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. France has already signed military deals with Greece as well as Cyprus, and it has also sold 80 Rafale jets to the UAE, where it preserves a military base. In November, French President Emmanuel Macron met Lapid in Paris and the two spoke about expanding the economic and security bilateral relationship between their countries. Although the European and Israeli approach vis-à-vis Iran do not coincide, the French leader has been vocal in admonishing Tehran.

The regional environment is complex, and several unknown factors render stability a difficult objective to achieve. Under uncertain circumstances, Israel can be confident that two important players in the Eastern Mediterranean, and member states of the European Union – Greece and Cyprus – remain sincere partners and good friends. Athens and Nicosia are able to further promote their own experience in working together with Jerusalem – in tandem with the significance of the Abraham Accords – as a paradigm in search of calmness and stability in the neighborhood.

The writer is a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a senior fellow at ELIAMEP and a lecturer at the European Institute of Nice.