An eye on Turkey

Few outcomes in Cyprus-Greece-Israel trilateral summit

Turkey is a viable partner for East Med gas development | Getty

Despite being labeled “historic,” the trilateral summit held in Nicosia on January 28 among Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did not yield concrete results. The 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Cyprus, Greece and Israel formally established the three countries’ will to strengthen energy cooperation and protect important infrastructure. The MoU also included a joint declaration of intent to lay an undersea electric cable linking Israel, Cyprus and Greece (Crete). But political wishes have yet to translate into actual projects. And on that front, the trilateral summit did not make significant advances.

In Nicosia, the three leaders reiterated their “readiness to further explore projects such as the EastMed Pipeline” (emphasis added). The carefully worded statement rules out any commitment, not surprising given the question marks that surround the project, even before a feasibility study is completed. Given the technical challenges, the project carries an exorbitant price tag, which makes its commercial viability doubtful in current conditions.

The first summit between the three leaders took place after a warming of ties between Israel and Turkey last December, which is hoped to bring about normalization between the two countries. Whether in the preparatory meeting leading to the summit (held in Jerusalem on December 16) or during the summit itself, Israeli officials were careful not to provoke Turkey. On the day the summit was held, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz even said Israel wanted to have the ability to export gas through both Greece and Turkey, before adding that the Turkish option would be cheaper.

Despite the numerous official visits, declarations of intent, expressions of interests and MoUs, Cyprus and Israel have yet to translate their political wishes into actual projects. The two countries have been negotiating a unitization agreement for years and have yet to conclude it. According to former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Oded Eran: “The unitization agreement between Israel and Cyprus will be signed if the internal political dispute in Cyprus is solved, and if gas from the countries can be exported to Turkey.”

Regardless if it is right or wrong, Turkey appears to be omnipresent in Cypriot-Israeli relations, much to the dismay of Cypriots.

One project in particular embodies Cypriot frustration: the now dormant plans to establish a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Vasilikos. The amount of gas in Cyprus’ only confirmed find, Aphrodite, does not, on its own, justify the construction of this multi-billion dollar facility. More gas needs to be committed to make the plant economically viable. And despite certain positive (yet never decisive) signals, Cyprus waited in vain for Israeli gas. By not committing gas that would justify building an LNG facility on the island, Cyprus does not have the autonomy it badly needs to exploit its own gas. Instead, Cyprus now has to grapple to develop Aphrodite.

More than any other country in the region, Israel views its gas resources as a strategic commodity. Beyond their obvious economic benefits, contributing to meeting local demand, Israel hopes these resources would provoke a geopolitical change that would strengthen its position in the region. The idea is to weaken animosity towards it by creating shared interests with countries in the region. This largely explains why first export deals were negotiated with clients in Jordan, Egypt and Palestine (although precious few were finalized). Israel is also keeping an eye on Turkey, not only for its vast market, but also because Turkey enjoyed good relations with Israel long before Jordan or Egypt established relations with it, breaking a near perfect Arab and Muslim boycott of Israel. Today, Ankara still has the potential to play that role and cooperation between the two countries continues to be accorded high priority, despite ups and downs, and despite a sometimes virulent rhetoric.

For Israel, Cyprus and Greece contributed to filling a void left by Turkey over the past few years. A partnership with these two countries offered Israel a “breathing space,” in a region that is mostly hostile to it. But, important as it is, this partnership does not provide Israel the strategic edge it is hoping its newfound resources would give it in this part of the neighborhood. Turkey on the other hand (and other countries in the region) can offer Israel a strategic gain that Cyprus and Greece cannot offer: a breakthrough into the Muslim world, hoping that it would contribute to controlling hostility towards it. As long as Israel believes there is room to improve relations with Turkey, it will not take its relations with Cyprus and Greece to a place that would threaten its relations with Turkey.

This explains why Israel still perceives Turkey as an important strategic partner, despite strained relations since 2010. If reconciliation between Israel and Turkey is sealed – in large part motivated by energy considerations – future gas cooperation between the two countries hinges on Cyprus if a pipeline is to be laid from Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone to Turkey. Which provides both Israel and Turkey with an incentive to encourage Greek and Turkish Cypriots to settle their conflict, though it remains to be seen how strong they perceive this incentive to be.

Mona Sukkarieh is the cofounder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives (http://www.mesp.me), a Beirut based political risk consultancy

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