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28 May, 2024
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Cyprus bets on trust amid Turkey-Israel flirt

Regional trust put to the test as Israel and Turkey touch up on trips ahead of historic meeting


Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides says Nicosia is confident it won’t be sidelined as Israeli President Isaac Herzog prepares for a historic trip to Ankara but not before popping in for a visit to Cyprus as trust in the region is put to the test by all key players.

Herzog will be the first Israeli leader in more than a decade to officially set in motion a potential rapprochement with Ankara, as the two regional powers work to lower tensions and improve relations.

But the Israeli president, whose family history and connections are tied to Cyprus, is first scheduled to visit Athens and Nicosia before heading to Turkey next month for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the last few days, Greek Cypriot political and media pundits have been criticizing the government and seeking reassurances that excellent relations with Israel, including cooperation on energy and defense, would not be sidelined as Israel warmed up to Turkey.

Nicosia has confidence in Israel

In an interview with Kathimerini on Sunday, newly-reappointed Kasoulides said Nicosia had “confidence” in the Israeli government, “meaning that whatever a country does to improve its own relations with Turkey does not mean that they will abandon you.”

“No one has ever said that our friend is the enemy of our enemy, that is not how relations between countries are,” Kasoulides said.

Israeli sources quoted in the media insist that improved relations with Turkey would not come at the expense of close ties recently between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus.

Similar concerns have been expressed by media pundits who point to Ankara condemning Israel’s actions towards Palestinians and Jerusalem calling on the neighbor to drop support for militant Hamas.

No reported Palestinian preconditions

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said Ankara, which has been mounting a charm offensive in the region, would not turn back on support for Palestinians for the rapprochement.

According to Reuters, a Turkish delegation visiting Israel this week was expected to meet Palestinian officials including President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian energy interests have received renewed attention after following Washington’s finalized formulation of a new strategy in the eastern Mediterranean that calls on all players to cooperate.

Bennett has total trust in Herzog

But while Herzog’s position at the top of the Israeli government is largely ceremonial, the president got a shot of confidence from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who still issued cautionary statements over the endeavor.

Bennett said Israel was treading cautiously regarding Erdogan, saying “things are happening very slowly and gradually” but also said “we have total trust.”

“I don’t know when there was last a relationship like this” between a president and a prime minister, Bennett said.

Washington rejects plan that excludes Turkey

The move has been in the works for some time according to Turkish media, with the actual visit to take place after Washington officially withdrew support from an ambitious EastMed gas pipeline that excluded Turkey.

Washington recently told Nicosia, Athens, and Ankara -reportedly all at once- that environmental concerns and financial reasons made it difficult for a project that also creating political tensions in the region.

Christodoulides gave a bizarre tweet prop to Hochstein, who was widely known for favoring Israeli gas going to Turkey and the Palestinian Authority as well as Cypriot gas exports to Turkey

But US officials have since reemphasized US President Joe Biden’s focus on green strategies as a way forward in the region.

Asked by the Cyprus News Agency to clarify this week whether the US position on the EastMed was political, Erika Olson, deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing policy for Southern Europe and the Caucasus, said “no” and pointed to economic realities of the future.

“No, it’s really based on the Biden administration’s dedication to moving towards clean energy and combating climate change,” Olson said.

Last year US State Secretary Antony Blinken appointed a businessman and former lobbyist, Israel-born Amos Hochstein, as energy security envoy, signaling a new strategic focus in Washington.

But the appointment got a bizarre tweet prop from Kasoulides’ predecessor and EastMed pipeline advocate Nikos Christodoulides, as Hochstein had been on public record favoring pipelines connecting Israel’s offshore resources to Turkey and the Palestinian Authority as well as Cypriot gas exports to Turkey,

The former minister had written that Nicosia looked forward to engaging with Hochstein in his “new important role, towards our common vision for a peaceful and prosperous EastMed.”

“Great news of the appointment of a diplomat, all too familiar with the EastMed region, its challenges and its potential,” Christodoulides wrote back in August.

In early January Christodoulides resigned amid talk of a presidential run, but predecessor-and-successor Kasoulides, who has not been enthusiastic about the EastMed pipeline, said Nicosia had been told that same weekend about Washington’s position just before he was re-appointed.

“They informed us, both us and the Greek foreign ministry at the same time, one or two days before I took on my duties,” Kasoulides said two weeks after he took office.

“I think Israel was also notified simultaneously and I won’t rule out that Turkey was also notified,” Kasoulides speculated.

Christodoulides announced on January 9, that he was stepping down two days later, saying his resignation was accepted by President Nicos Anastasiades.

Back in 2016, Hochstein told Congress the eastern Mediterranean market was “still looking for validation that historic political differences will not get in the way of investment and development.”

“If they don’t share those resources, most of the gas will have to stay in the ground,” Hochstein said.

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