By Isaac Binkovitz
In 2010 one of the largest natural gas fields to have been found in recent years was discovered off the coast of Israel. Naturally, they called it Leviathan, after the massive Biblical sea monster (used in Modern hebrew to refer to a whale). In 2011 Cyprus got in on the fun, with the discovery of its own massive natural gas field. It was a beautiful thing; they called it Aphrodite.
The fields, spanning Israeli and Cypriot territorial waters, may be warming historically frosty relations between Greece/Cyprus and Israel (increasingly distant from its historic ally Anakara, now under the sway of Erdogan’s pan-Islamist/neo-Ottomanist vision).
But for this gas to reach fuel-hungry European markets, the emerging Hellenic-Hebrew energy triangle will need Turkish cooperation in transportation. And, as with most things in this part of the world, that’s messy politics. But, with the looming threat of Russian natural gas geopolitcs, the EU is as interested as ever in resolving the Cypriot conflict, and bridging the Greek/Cypriot-Turkish and Israeli-Turkish diplomatic divides.
But it is unclear any of the four-and-half near eastern republics involved share that interest. Cyprus is exploring building an LNG facility to allow it to ship gas out by boat, and avoid the need to deal with Ankara, or North Nicosia for that matter. Cyprus is also exploring the option of building a pipeline from Israel through Cyprus directly to Greece, bypassing Turkey entirely. Both of these solutions threaten the financial viability of the project, and push back the date the region’s gas could hit the European markets.
Israel, regionally isolated and eager for a moderate Muslim ally in its neighborhood, has long been an ally of Turkey. Initially, this was part of its so-called “periphery policy.” The periphery policy was Israel’s response to the united Arab nationalist opposition it faced. As essentially neo-fascist Arab nationalism swept the region, steam rolling local cultures and expelling or oppressing minorities, the non-Arab states around the fringe of this region started to become nervous. In this environment, Israel cultivated allies in Kemalist Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and in Ethiopia.
(Incidentally, this follows the general simplified rule that neighboring countries will often be rivals, while a rival’s neighbor on the far side is a friend; France and Poland versus Germany, for example.)
Over the years, Israel provided military technologies to Turkey, and supported its integration into western security frameworks. This coincided with a period of Greek populism and hostility to Israel. Turkey was by far the more powerful of the two, and was generally more amenable to an Israeli alliance.
The election of the AKP’s Erdogan marked a shift in relations with Israel. At first the shift was subtle. But in the fallout of the Mavi Marmara raid, and the rise of regular anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in Turkish media, Erdogan has indicated that Israel is no longer an ally.
Despite this, Turkey’s military and intelligence establishment maintains ties to Israel. Erdogan has attempted to destroy this so-called deep state with a staggering number of trials of individuals, and large groups accused of conspiring against the government. Media coverage of these trials has been heavily restricted and censored. It remains to be seen if his effort to route the Kemalist “deep state” has been a success. It increasingly looks that Erdogan, now facing large protests at home (which he blames on “the Jews”), will not remain in power long enough to ensure that his AKP’s soft islamist program fills the post-kemalist space.
At any rate, Israel, for its part has been slow to apologize for any part of the Mavi Mamara raid, and has been returning the cold shoulder to Ankara. Only recently has it agreed to pay compensation for the botched raid. In the meantime, Israel has been wooing Greece and Cyprus, as Turkish relations remain icy. Greece had been somewhat hostile to Israel for decades. In the 1990’s it pursued normalized but distant relations with Israel. But now Israel is offering hard assistance to Greece and Cyprus as they tighten up their naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean in response to Turkish threats to use naval force to prevent drilling for natural gas in the region.
Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have been conducting joint military exercises in the region, and exchanging vows to open trade and promote tourism –Cyprus is already a favorite Israeli getaway, especially for those seeking to circumvent Israel’s primitive and pre-modern marriage laws (a subject for another time).
This is all well and good. Christian and democratic Greece and Cyprus may be better suited for an alliance with Israel than the post-Kemalist Muslim “democratic” Turkey (ignore for a moment the comparatively high levels of antisemitism in Greek society, and the long history of bad blood between Jews and Greeks continuously since they first met in antiquity). Cyprus is close to Israel, and Greece, with its many islands provides many outposts for military exercises in the area. Plus Greece is a member of NATO, and both Hellenic states are EU members, unlike Turkey, which is just a member of NATO but not the EU. Relations with Greece and Cyprus provide Israel a degree of mainstream legitimacy it generally lacks in Europe.
But can Greek military assets really compare to Turkey’s? The honest answer is no. That is why the Israeli security establishment has been pushing Netanyahu to reconcile with Turkey. So far it has not been all that successful. But the establishment in both states sees the facts, and wants to restore the alliance.
So was the Hellenic-Hebrew alliance nothing more than a myth? No. Reconciliation with Turkey need not spell the end of Israel’s Hellenic dalliances. On the contrary, Greece and Cyprus cannot simply avoid talking to Ankara either. Nor are they capable of facing down the Turkish military should tensions flare. The current show of unity between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel is more likely put on to demonstrate to Ankara that these states have options without Turkey. Turkey can’t go it alone in its region (with Arab instability to the south, the ongoing Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Kurdish resistance in its east, and a neo-imperial Russia in the Black Sea). The Turkish establishment knows this, and will seek to resolve whatever security challenges it can.
That’s what Aphrodite and Leviathan make clear: they offer a big a beautiful thing. But to be more than just myth, the near eastern states need to sit down and work out at least some of the major difference among them and pursue greater regional integration in security, trade, and energy, among other sectors.
With Erdogan’s government in crisis, facing massive protests, and corruption charges backed by increasingly specific and convincing evidence, Erdogan’s days in politics are numbered. If he takes AKP down with him, there could be key window of opportunity to better integrate near eastern foreign policy, to everyone’s advantage. The EU may have the most to gain.