Three democracies in the Eastern Mediterranean have come under pressure from an increasingly aggressive Turkey aiming to expand and consolidate its regional influence. Distinguished by their Western affiliations in an explosive part of the Islamic world and by a geographic proximity that may constitute an eventual advantage, these three countries are Israel, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus.
They are also beset by political and, in two cases, critical economic problems. Greece and Cyprus, both members of the European Union, have become fiscal basket cases mired in entitlement addiction, redistributive economics, and unsustainable debt, teetering on the cusp of systemic bankruptcy. Having unwisely practiced a form of bureaucratic and fiduciary socialism, compounded by toxic banking practices, they now find themselves constantly in need of bailouts from the major European financial institutions and moneylending consortiums — the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund — for which they will have to pay in the tainted coin of unpopular austerity measures, tax clawbacks, and banking levies on depositors. Capital flight is inevitable. Political unrest is a given.
Israel, by comparison, is an economic powerhouse, one of the few Western nations that have managed to weather the economic downturn of the last years, thanks to competent leadership and a vibrant technological and entrepreneurial sector. But Israel suffers from many impairments and detriments: a fractured political system, with over a dozen parties acrimoniously contending for representation in the Knesset, leading to largely unstable political coalitions; virulent terrorist entities on its borders; a subversive leftist intelligentsia and academic fifth column; energy dependence on an avowed enemy, Egypt (in addition to the misfortune that the pipeline running through the Sinai Peninsula is regularly sabotaged by Palestinian terrorists); and an American president intent on shriveling the country to its “Auschwitz borders” — a White House map released on the eve of the president’s recent visit to Israel shows the Golan Heights as Syrian, northern Israel as part of Lebanon, and Jerusalem as part of the West Bank.
But there is good news too, in particular on the energy front, which promises economic relief, energy independence from foreign hydrocarbons, and, as a result, a more viable and resilient political situation. Two vast natural gas fields, dubbed Leviathan and Tamar, have been discovered roughly 80 miles off the coast of Israel, to be developed in collaboration with Cyprus, which stands to benefit from its own Aphrodite plot, with a view to exporting the product in combination with international companies. This project would involve Greece as well since, aside from the extraction of its own reserves in the south Aegean, one purported export route would run overland through Greece toward European markets, thus bypassing Turkey.
As Aristomenis Syngros, chairman of the Invest in Greece Agency, remarks in the Jerusalem Post, “The development of Greece-Israel relations is a cause for great satisfaction and offers the potential for wide-ranging synergies, win-win partnerships and significant bilateral advantages. The two countries, though small in size, can have a big impact on regional development.” Apart from areas for cooperation relating to “water management, organic farming, applied farm research, land improvement and aquiculture,” the new energy nexus may serve “as one of the most meaningful anchors of the Greek-Israel relationship.” Syngros concludes that “during this time of local, regional and global challenges, new strategic partnerships that harness competitive advantages … remain key priorities.”
This network of economic and cartographic symbiosis applies equally, as we have seen, to the Republic of Cyprus, settled by Mycenean Greeks in the 2nd millennium B.C. and which has remained demographically Greek to this day. As the Cyprus Mail reports, Commerce Minister Neoclis Sylikiotis, speaking at a signing ceremony for transfer agreements pertaining to drilling rights, said the deal brings “a new era of strategic partnership between Cyprus and Israel,” with both economic and political ramifications, opening up possibilities of “significant synergies.”
Similarly, the highly respected Washington D.C.-based research institute The Jamestown Foundation has noted the important economic basis that “these gas projects and potential exports to Europe” would establish. It reports that “Israel, Cyprus and Greece have been holding intensive talks in recent months at the prime ministers’, ministerial, and chiefs-of-staff levels, about offshore gas projects and regional security.” New gas pipelines and electricity cables linking the three countries, observes the Public Service Europe (PS) website, would be an energy-security plus for Europe. A collaborative energy venture would clearly yield significant dividends for the principal actors involved.
Not surprisingly there is strong opposition to this undertaking from the Islamic world in general and, more specifically, from the fundamentalist bloc in Turkey, an enemy which the three invested countries have in common. Greece, of course, has not forgotten the 400-year history of Ottoman occupation and is acutely aware of a renewed menace in the Aegean from the Islamic colossus to its immediate East, which has begun voicing claims to the tiny Greek island of Kastelorizo barely a mile off its southern coast. As Daniel Pipes writes, “That Athens controls this wisp of land implies it could (but does not yet) claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea that reduces the Turkish EEZ to a fraction of what it would be were the island under Ankara’s control.” Indeed, “Were Athens to claim its full EEZ, Kastelorizo’s presence would make its EEZ contiguous with the EEZ of Cyprus.” Scoping has revealed enormous reserves off Crete and Kastelorizo, prompting Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deploy a fleet of warships into the area and to engineer other provocations.
Cyprus, in turn, is constantly looking over its shoulder to the northeast, where the Republic of Northern Cyprus, a Turkish conquest without international recognition, remains a perpetual threat. Substantial Turkish forces are stationed there and may conceivably be used to enforce a Northern claim to the Cypriot EEZ. And Israel for its part has seen its once friendly relations with Turkey disintegrate into a condition of overt hostility, with Erdogan responsible for dispatching a ship staffed with provocateurs to break the legal Israeli naval blockade of the terrorist enclave in Gaza and afterwards prosecuting Israeli officers in absentia, calling Zionism (along with “Islamophobia”) a “crime against humanity,” and threatening to send the Turkish navy into the eastern Mediterranean to prevent Israel from exploiting the gas fields. (The Tamar field, it should be noted, is now on line, supplying Israel’s energy needs.)
Cypriot energy analyst and president of the “one Cyprus” movement George Stavri, writing in the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS), has examined “how this New Energy Triangle (NET)…will shape and inevitably affect the new balance of power in this crucial part of the world.” Stavri, who is no friend to Israel, would like to see Turkey as a partner in the alliance rather than “odd man out of the NET,” since by his lights, “the NET is not a tool of foreign policy to be cast on Turkey to either entrap it or to isolate it.” Stavri fears that such a policy “will unfortunately boomerang on the two weaker links of the chain, Greece and Cyprus.” Turkey is patently of the same mind; Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, ignoring the problematic status of Northern Cyprus as conquered territory and the fact that Turkey does not recognize the International Law of the Sea, has stated that the “only way to exploit the natural resources flows is through an agreement under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general and by getting the consent of the Turkish Cypriot side.”
But Turkish participation would be plainly counterproductive, no less than Turkish admission into the EU would have been. There should be no hesitation in seeing Turkey under Erdogan’s ruling AKP as an Islamic imperialist regime seeking regional hegemony. Considering their shared prospects and common enemy, a feasible solution to this perilous state of affairs seems almost to suggest itself, namely, a formal Mediterranean association, based on mutual political, economic, and military concerns, between Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Full disclosure: the idea was first put forward as a “Mediterranean confederation” by a well-connected Coptic expatriate and personal acquaintance — who wishes to remain anonymous — and submitted to the Israeli government several years ago. “Confederation” may not be the right word as it implies political unification, but a robust alignment of national interests could be achieved through a covenant or league with military backing.
A union of this nature, reminiscent of the so-called “phantom” and comparatively short-lived Periphery Doctrine adopted by prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1958 but collectively revived, strengthened, and upgraded in the present context, would pool the military resources of these countries under a joint leadership to be agreed upon, and would have the potential of impeding the Turkish hegemon from acting belligerently in the region. (One can see how this rejuvenated policy would work by studying Israel’s covert military agreement with a resurgent Ethiopia and in its leveraging of its knowledge-based industries with many other countries, such as Brazil, Nigeria, China, and India.) The talks currently underway in Jerusalem, Athens, and Nicosia are a favorable sign that a workable three-country strategic plan may be in the offing.
Israel, however, according to the Jamestown report cited above, is wary of becoming involved even indirectly in the Cyprus portion of the dispute, accounting, perhaps, for the lack of response to my acquaintance’s proposal. But such reluctance to contain the expansionist designs of Turkey, the new regional sheriff, would be a catastrophic error of timid and over-cautious statesmanship — no doubt in the ill-conceived hope of a future reconciliation with a veritable rogue state and implacable adversary. (Such temporizing is also evident in Israel’s carving out a part of its EEZ near Gaza for exploitation by the Palestinian Authority.) Writing for the German Marshall Fund of the United States (G/M/F), Sir Michael Leigh disparages the idea of “a zero-sum game” since “Israel and Turkey may in time overcome their differences.” But the temptation to delay, hedge, waffle, or appease in the face of the obvious needs to be resisted; Turkey is not likely to come around anytime soon.
Pressed by the Obama administration (and possibly by a perceived shared interest in containing the Syrian debacle), Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent apology and offer of compensation for the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine militants were killed after attacking lightly armed Israeli commandos, is a perfect example of such feckless and trembling wrongheadedness. The apology should have come from Turkey — which, as Benny Morris points out in The National Interest, “had unofficially orchestrated the flotilla operation.” There is no doubt that Turkey was the power behind the Hamas-and-al Qaida-connected IHH “charity” which was materially instrumental in organizing the Gaza-bound flotilla. As even the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News observes, “there can be no mistake that the Erdoğan government is morally and politically behind this group.” Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is absolutely correct when he urges Jerusalem to “take off its gloves in dealing with Ankara.” An excellent rule of thumb is: never apologize, and certainly not to an autocrat, who will use one’s contrition as a weapon in his arsenal. (Consider how well Obama’s apology blitz has worked in the Muslim world!) Erdogan has already reneged on his quid pro quo to normalize relations with Israel and to fast-track an exchange of ambassadors, making Netanyahu look weak and foolish. Rubbing salt in the wound, Erdogan has announced that he will soon visit Gaza in what Ryan Mauro calls “a thinly-concealed victory lap.”
In any case, the neo-Ottoman initiative in the eastern Mediterranean was only to be expected and can be readily countered by a show of concerted pushback in the form of a determined three-nation entente — a pact with teeth. Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman understood the importance of “closer cooperation with Greece and Cyprus to offset the deterioration in relations with Turkey”; this cooperative program should now be enhanced and reinforced and the situational affinity between the three stakeholders recognized and expressed in hard, realpolitik terms. Mercantile transactions are often limned in fugitive pigments; what is demanded is a concordat chiseled in stone. The formal declaration of a mutual defense treaty, following a practical and resolute assembling of relevant assets and capabilities — a Mediterranean League — would do much to put a raving and bellicose Erdogan on his better behavior, or at least cause him to re-evaluate his warlike and invidious policies.
George Stavri alludes to an agreement that “has already been signed between Cyprus and Israel allowing the latter the use of Cyprus’ military infrastructure” in order to protect both plant and personnel. This provision may be regarded as one wall or tower in the construction of a more extended fortification and base of operations. Another is the cooperation agreement between the Hellenic and Israeli air forces, which have engaged in planning and execution exercises. These are strong preliminaries and, as it were, necessary scaffolding; nonetheless, in a stormy and volatile political climate where, to cite from the bilateral position paper of two American congressmen, the “current energy supply is particularly threatened by instability in the region,” it’s the edifice itself that counts in the long run. The elements are already in place; the question is whether to pussyfoot or to be pro-active. Submissive myopia is never a good idea in the face of a geopolitical bully. The kind of league or alliance being proposed is not aggressive in intention, but its status needs to be concretely ratified and a comprehensive structure set up if it is to serve its purpose as a deterrent. Turkey, for all its bluster and ostensible might, would be effectively stymied.
Circumstances now demand decisive action. A three-nation triangle as an expression of muscular political will and held together by a joint command center predicated on the ability to project power is more than a geometric figure on a map. It is a force-multiplier, a signal of conviction, and, in the eastern Mediterranean, a defensive configuration to be reckoned with. Its benefits in energy security, economic opportunity, political virility, and military preparedness should not be discounted.
(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)