DEBATE: What Is the Future of the Israel-Greece-Cyprus Partnership?

By July 29, 2019

BESA Center Online Debate No. 18, July 29, 2019

Q:      In 2010, Israel decided to enrich its Eastern Mediterranean strategy by looking for new partners. In so doing, it turned to Greece and Cyprus. Slowly and steadily, the three countries expanded their cooperation and overcame previously held stereotypes about one another. Trilateral summits have provided the basis for important discussions on energy, security, trade, and culture issues. The sixth tripartite summit, which took place in Jerusalem last March, was attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. US support for the tripartite relationship could create new possibilities for the future of the Eastern Mediterranean.

BESA joins the debate by posing the question: What is the future of the Israel- Greece-Cyprus partnership?

Respondents: Michael Rubin, David L. Phillips, Gallia Lindenstrauss, Dr Endy D. Zemenides, Katerina Sokou, Benjamin Weinthal, Angelos AthanasopoulosZenonas Tziarras, Seth Frantzman

Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC

The tripartite partnership between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus will be the bedrock of Eastern Mediterranean security for the remainder of the 21st century. Not only cooperation over gas fields, but also the common interests of democracy will cement relations. Theirs will also be a relationship of necessity. Syria will remain unstable for years to come, while Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has succeeded in his goal of transforming Turkey from a Western-oriented aspiring democracy into an anti-Western, revisionist, paranoid regime. It is wishful thinking to believe Turkey can return to the status quo ante upon his ouster or death. He has not only indoctrinated a generation of schoolchildren, but has reshaped the Turkish military from top to bottom. Simply put, today’s Turkish army is as committed to the spread of Islamism as is the Pakistani military.

Erdoğan is driving Turkey off an economic cliff. Not only is he hoping Turkey’s decades-long occupation of northern Cyprus will finally pay dividends with the discovery of offshore gas, but he hopes he can disrupt any regional production that would undercut Turkey’s importance as a transit country. Erdoğan wants conflict in order to distract Turks and rally them around the flag. Together, these dynamics will keep the threat of conflict alive, and draw the eastern Med’s new ‘axis of democracy’ even more closely together.

David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and former senior adviser to the UN and US State Department

Economic and security cooperation is expanding between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. The countries signed a joint declaration at the Sixth Trilateral Summit on March 21, 2019, agreeing to increase regional cooperation; support energy independence and security; and defend against destabilization.

Natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean are hugely significant, contributing to regional energy security and diversification. ExxonMobil recently announced the world’s third-biggest gas find off the coast of Cyprus. Plans are underway to develop gas fields in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Israel and Cyprus, as well as a network of new underwater pipelines.

Security cooperation encompasses counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, search-and-rescue, and maritime security. Souda Bay Naval Base in Greece and the British bases in Cyprus are hubs for cooperation. They represent an alternative to Incirlik base in Turkey.

Turkey is increasingly hostile, anti-democratic, and unreliable as an ally. Turkey has gone rogue, as evidenced by its plan to acquire S-400 missiles in defiance of US appeals and NATO procedures. Turkey’s deployment of warships to the Exclusive Economic Zone risks violent conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Israel, Greece and Cyprus are democracies with shared values that buttress practical cooperation.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv

Israel-Greece and Israel-Cyprus relations are likely to continue to prosper, and some of the cooperation mechanisms already in place between the countries will deepen.

I do not see relations evolving into a full military alliance, as Greece and Cyprus will not want to take part in Israel’s conflicts nor will Israel want to be involved in the conflict over Cyprus. The countries are, however, likely to cooperate in protecting the future export route for natural gas resources found off Israel’s and Cyprus’s shores. Turkey will continue to view with suspicion the deepening relations among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, which will cause tensions to rise in the Eastern Mediterranean.

New gas discoveries, if found, will increase the involvement of external powers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia will not want to see the rise of serious competition to its energy exports to Europe. The size of the new discoveries will also encourage the EU to try and play bigger role in future developments of the region. The US is already increasing its cooperation with Greece, and will likely continue encouraging the growing cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. Pressures from external actors will likely complicate the calculations of the local actors, although the fundamentals of the relationship still encourage strong cooperation.

Dr. Endy D. Zemenides, Executive Director, Hellenic American Leadership Council, Chicago

The burgeoning tripartite partnership among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel was on a knife’s edge from 2013-15. The 2013 Netanyahu apology to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the first flotilla raised the fear that Israel might pivot back toward Ankara. Israel, for its part, was concerned over indications of anti-Zionism and antisemitism in the incoming SYRIZA/ANEL coalition in 2015.

Today, the gulf between Turkey and Israel is as wide as ever, and Greece’s major parties exhibit a pro-Israel consensus and are vocal about fighting antisemitism.  Greece, Cyprus, and Israel have held six trilateral summits, and they form the core (along with Egypt) of the new Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

It is this latter body that points the way forward. For the Greece-Cyprus-Israel partnership to reach its full potential, it has to be increasingly formalized and institutionalized. The Forum and the new permanent secretariat for the trilaterals based in Cyprus are a good start.

The next few years should be focused on capacity-building, specifically on the energy and security front. Gas from the Noble Energy-controlled fields will be set to get to market soon, and a joint energy infrastructure will be required to make that a reality.  Building both Greece’s and Cyprus’s military capacity should be prioritized as well.

The next few years will determine whether this partnership becomes a true alliance.  The positive developments of the past decade have to be institutionalized further.

Katerina Sokou, Non-resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council and Correspondent, Hi Kathimerini Greek Daily and Skai TV, Washington DC

The trilateral partnership among Israel, Greece, and Cyprus has the potential to play an increased role in providing security and realizing energy opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean. It makes even more sense in the context of the East Med Gas Forum, which engages most of the countries of the region in a partnership aimed at energy cooperation.

Even as its members have been at pains to stress that this is not an alliance against Turkey, in the face of increased Turkish aggression in the region and its dubious dealings with Russia and Iran, the trilateral should also be leveraged as a stabilizing factor. Any disruption in energy exploration will undermine the region’s economic prospects and give rise to further security challenges and big power competition. Amid continued instability in Syria and at a time of tensions with Iran that challenge safe navigation for the energy trade, it is imperative to keep other fronts contained.

To that end, it is important that the US and the EU not only appreciate the energy and security diversification the trilateral partnership offers, but also support it in concrete terms. Setting up the regional energy center that the bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act is proposing to Congress, and lending political and economic support to the East Med Gas Forum, would add valuable resources and capabilities for Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to lead the region toward further integration, inspired by the successful example of the European Coal and Steel Community in achieving peace and prosperity.

Benjamin Weinthal, Research Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington DC

By cooperating to advance shared interests, the troika of Greece, Israel, and Cyprus can make an enormous contribution to regional security. To demonstrate this, consider the late May visit by US Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to Cyprus. After meeting with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Engel said: “I’m excited about the prospect of our ally Israel working with Cyprus. I think we have an opportunity for peace and cooperation as never before.” Engel seeks, from the US perspective, to constrain the actions of Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow’s geopolitical strategy has been to align itself with the Syrian and Iranian regimes, and to strengthen ties with Turkey via military sales.

All of this helps to explain why there is a natural − and pressing − need for the democracies of Greece, Israel, and Cyprus to forge a close, robust alliance. Engel clearly jumped into the future when he said in Cyprus that he wants to advance relations with countries that favor the liberal, democratic Western order. He added that the Russian government is engaged in “malevolent machinations.”

The slated sale of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan only serves to strengthen the need for a strong security bond among Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. Turkey’s Islamic political system is a serious threat to the troika of democracies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Angelos Athanasopoulos, Senior Diplomatic, Defense and EU Affairs Editor, To Vima, Athens

The recent emergence of “trilateral diplomacy” in the Eastern Mediterranean has profoundly altered the dynamics of the region. In this context, the trilateral partnership among Greece, Israel, and Cyprus has been the bedrock of this new development, triggering further regional cooperation among neighboring states and partners such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority.

The main pillars of the Greece-Israel-Cyprus triangle are defense and energy cooperation, and the harmonious nature of the three countries’ interests has aroused the interest of the US in both pillars. However, cooperation needs to expand on more fronts and acknowledge further challenges.

The three countries should proceed with an idea tabled by Israel during the most recent High Level Cooperation Council between Alexis Tsipras, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Nikos Anastasiadis, namely on cyber security. Thessaloniki could become an ideal cyber security hub for the Eastern Mediterranean, southeastern Europe, and the Balkans in particular if this idea is developed.

Furthermore, the three countries should strive to address the twin challenges of Turkey and Iran. Ankara and Tehran seem to have ambitions for the Eastern Mediterranean that cannot be ignored by Greece or Cyprus (insofar as it concerns Turkey) nor Israel (insofar as it concerns Iran). This is a critical challenge, and a fine balance will have to be reached among the three partners.

Zenonas Tziarras, Researcher-Geopolitical Analyst, PRIO, Cyprus Centre, Nicosia

The Cyprus-Israel-Greece partnership was largely a product of systemic-geopolitical circumstances that both allowed and pushed the participating states to lean on each other. The three states share some common geopolitical and security concerns while recognizing the mutual and individual benefits that come with their cooperation in domains such as the economy, energy, security and beyond. Despite the growing consolidation of this partnership, the collaboration of the three states remains mostly at a low-politics level even as the expectations for energy cooperation have not yet materialized.

The partnership can only have a meaningful and lasting impact on the Eastern Mediterranean if high-politics areas of cooperation are further expanded. Obstacles to cooperation in the energy domain should be lifted and defense relations taken more seriously. The diplomatic language of the involved partners should also become clearer and less abstract in terms of naming common challenges and threats. Further regional integration and the institutionalization of the trilateral partnership – e.g., on the basis of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – could be a good vision for the future. However, a number of steps need to be taken first to deepen the cooperation and ensure its sustainability. Otherwise, new changes in the systemic environment of the Eastern Mediterranean could easily challenge the partnership’s viability or significance.

Seth J. Frantzman, Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis; covers Middle East affairs for The Jerusalem Post

There is increased interest in cooperation between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus as part of various energy and strategic partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) area. In March 2019 the US also became involved in encouraging this cooperation.

On the face of it, the desire by Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, with other countries as potential partners such as Egypt or Italy, to cooperate makes sense. These are now more natural allies because Turkey has fostered relations with Russia and its current government tends to be more critical of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. With US-Turkey relations harmed by the S-400 deal, the US has good reason to encourage the EastMed concept. European countries, wary of being too reliant on Russia and the TurkStream energy agreements it has with Turkey, may also want to link up with Israel via EastMed.

But what has been accomplished despite the sixth trilateral meeting of an EastMed summit and stories about $7 billion of investment in a pipeline project? Turkey and Russia already have a TurkStream pipeline and want to expand it. Turkey has been warned not to interfere in the Cyprus EEZ, which includes northern Cyprus. Ankara says it can drill in this area and views Northern Cyprus as a country.

While Ankara drills and builds pipelines, European countries talk. This is the usual model among western democracies, which view talking as action. Unfortunately, Israel now finds itself listening to more talk. There is talk of “action” at an EU summit and “condemnations” and “discussions.” Every week brings more articles on whether the pipeline or other cooperation could hearken a new geopolitical era, but articles indicating “slim hope” and wondering if the EastMed concept will work reveal the problem. In the end it is a question of if these countries will actually do something or merely have more photo opportunities and talk. So far the stories about EastMed appear more conceptual, meaning they are lagging behind the increasing alliance between Russia and Turkey and also Turkey’s other ambitions in the region.

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Dr. George N. Tzogopoulos
Dr. George N. Tzogopoulos

Dr. George N. Tzogopoulos (Ph.D. Loughborough University) specializes in media and international relations as well as Chinese affairs. Email: [email protected]