Amid the fast changing geo-politics of the Mid-East, Israel’s strategic manoeuvering appears to be aimed at raising the country’s bargaining position vis-à-vis not only some of its regional competitors such as Turkey and Iran but also its erstwhile allies: Europe and the U.S. Needless to say, the outstanding ‘Syrian question’ and the fast approaching prospects of an economically stronger Iran seem to have pushed the Israeli policy makers to strike an ‘energy deal’ with Greece and Cyprus—a deal that is supposed to have strong economic as well as politico-strategic underpinnings at various levels of polity.
Not only would such a deal allow Netanyahu to better play the domestic political game, which has recently seen some controversy regarding the development of Israel’s energy resources, the fulfilment of its energy-related needs and the imperative of lowering domestic energy prices, but also allow him to build a new anti-Iran alliance at the regional level.
In this particular regard, Israel’s agreement with Greece and Cyprus regarding the development of the vast hydrocarbon reserves that have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean in the seas belonging to Israel and Cyprus is of special significance, especially given that Greece is only the second country other than the US with which Israel has signed a ‘status of forces agreement’—an agreement that was signed in 2015 and was unambiguously termed as anti-Iran by the Israeli officials.
For instance, on the occasion of signing the agreement last year, Israel’s defence minister was reported to have said, “We perceive Iran as a generator and central catalyst to regional insecurity through its support to terrorist elements in the Middle East, particularly Shi’ite terrorism, though not only Shi’ite. And of course, the Iranian ambition for regional hegemony leads the regime in Tehran to undermine the stability of [other] regimes, which creates a challenge for all of us.”
In this regard, the January 28 declaration has some special significance. Although wide-ranging cooperation covering diverse fields has been mentioned in the Declaration, the core area is energy cooperation and the flag carrier of energy cooperation will be the EastMed Pipeline project (from Israel and Cyprus via Greece) that will help export the East Mediterranean gas to the European market.
The declaration has come at a time when Iran, too, has directed all its attention to accessing European market for its oil and gas. As such, by establishing an energy-alliance in the East Mediterranean, Israel is not only countering Iran’s European outreach in the post-sanctions scenario, it is also signifying its “Western allies” its own ability to forge alliances independent of their concerns or even vital interests.
To an extent, this alliance-formation by Israel does run counter to the U.S.’ own interests in the region. For example, by strategically and economically allying with Greece and Cyprus, Israel seems to have done a bit of damage to the U.S.’ own efforts at building a larger coalition to conduct operations in Syria. It is no secret that Greece and Cyprus historically have troubled relations with Turkey—a country the U.S. has long been courting for facilitating incursions into Syria. On the other hand, Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus is also a master-stroke of diplomacy against Turkey’s friendly overtures towards Israel. It is not to suggest that the declaration has done any serious damage to the recent rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, it cannot, however, still be gainsaid that through this alliance, Israel certainly has put itself on an advantageous position vis-à-vis Turkey.
Unsurprisingly, soon after the announcement of this declaration, US Vice-President Joe Biden called up Netanyahu and Anastasiades. Biden urged Netanyahu to seek normalization in Israel-Turkey relations, while he promised Anastasiades all US support for a speedy settlement of the Cyprus problem with Turkey.
During the public statements after the meetings, both Anastasiades and Tsipras stressed – without mentioning Turkey by name – that this cooperation was not “against anyone else.”
Netanyahu did not make any direct or indirect reference to Turkey in his statement. But on his way back to Israel, he told reporters that Israel was – in parallel with developments with Greece and Cyprus – trying to normalize ties with Ankara.
While Israel may be serious in normalizing its relations with Turkey, it is difficult to deny that this Israel-Greece-Cyprus alliance is going to leave a durable impact on Israel-Turkey relations. In a way, it is Israel’s response to Turkey’s own efforts at tapping into Israel’s gas reserves as a means to diversify and progressively reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas. Instead of returning Turkey’s “friendly overtures”, Israel, however, chose to focus on developing East Med pipeline which it can use to facilitate Europe in enabling it to diversify its own supply channels.
As such, by literally coming into a position to facilitate Europe in this regard, Israel is hitting the Iron where it is hot. Consider this fact, for instance: within the trilateral energy alliance, Israel will be the pivotal partner, and a regional powerhouse. Israel’s diplomatic options are multiplying just when the country looked isolated regionally following the diplomatic defeat it suffered in trying to stop the Iran nuclear deal.
That Israel is re-positioning itself regionally is absolutely evident from the very language of the declaration. With regard to regional territorial disputes, the declaration includes a clause expressing support for the unification of Cyprus and backing the UN efforts to solve the Cyprus-Turkish dispute.
Needless to say, of the three states, only Israel has enough military, economic and diplomatic resources at its disposal to exert pressure on regional and extra-regional states to resolve the outstanding disputes. By tempting the EU through the EastMed pipeline project, Israel has certainly sent a strong reply to some EU members, such as France, regarding the importance of maintaining their traditional pro-Israel stance on the Palestinian issue.
A message specifically directed at the EU was evident during Netanyahu’s media briefing as he told reporters that he urged the two leaders that their desire for the EU to assist in negotiations is not being matched by the positions the EU is taking. The EU’s stances are giving support to the Palestinians’ “all or nothing” positions, thereby distancing them from negotiations, he said.
Israel’s drive towards the formation of an “energy alliance” is, therefore, a very significant step towards revamping its weak regional position in the region. On the one hand, it is clearly directed at competing Iran’s access to the European market, and on the other, it is equally directed at gradually luring the EU back into the Israeli camp.
Besides it, this “energy alliance” can not only allow Israel to better negotiate and re-write its somewhat fractured relations with the U.S., but also be turned into a potential game changer at a time when almost all countries in the region are considering forming new alliances or shuffling the older ones. In simple words, Israel’s recent moves are directed at acquiring the wherewithal to pursue independent foreign policies and also the leverage to influence other countries’ policies. This is quite evident from how Israel is already manipulating foreign policies of Greece and Cyprus.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.