Could Cyprus pull Turkey and Israel into war?
While Ankara is keen to mend fences with Tel Aviv after recent tensions, the latter appears to be turning the tables, creating sparks over Cyprus, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid
Perhaps the watchword for developments on the Aegean- Eastern Mediterranean axis, where Turkey and Israel have been engaging in bouts of muscle flexing and squabbles over deep-sea oil, is "posturing". By no means does this apply to the heir to the Ottoman Empire alone; the Hebrew state is just as obsessed with its image. Yet, contrary to the impression it may seek to convey, Ankara has been the keener of the two to put an end to the deterioration in the relations between it and Tel Aviv.
A steadily escalating dual between the two countries has seethed several years. It first erupted with an angry verbal exchange and has since passed through Turkish condemnation of the blockade on Gaza, the televised spat during the Davos conference, and the Israeli assault against the Mavi Marmara off the shores of Gaza in May two years ago.
For four years, then, Turkey and Israel have growled, taken menacing steps against each other, and then backed off and continued to eye one another warily. Nor does either side appear ready to relax its guard, in spite of numerous efforts to ease tensions between the two. The most recent was reported in the Turkish daily, Sabah, which wrote that, as a gesture towards mending the rift between the two countries, Israel returned four Heron pilotless spy planes to Turkey after a month-long delay. These were four of the five aircraft that Ankara had sent back to Israel last year for repairs after they had technically malfunctioned. The article adds that some friendly European governments have been mediating between the two countries.
Elsewhere in the Turkish press we find reports transmitted from the Israeli press that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent an envoy to his Israeli counterpart, Netanyahu, with the purpose of repairing the rift in their bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, it has also been reported that Israeli officials have contacted families of the Turkish victims who died in the attack on the Turkish ship that was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. According to these reports, the officials were secretly instructed to offer compensation amounting to $6 million along with a letter of apology. However, the gesture falls short of Turkish demands, to which testify the warrants issued by the Turkish public prosecutor for the arrest of four Israeli army commanders. He named former chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi, deputy commander of the navy Admiral Eliazar Maroum, director of military intelligence General Amos Yaldin, and head of Air Force intelligence General Avishai Levi, and called for their life imprisonment for having issued the orders to attack the Mavi Marmara.
For his part, US President Barack Obama urged his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gèl to try to restore a positive climate in Turkish-Israeli relations. In the meeting between the two heads of state, which took place during the NATO summit in Chicago 20-21 May, Obama said that improved relations between the two countries would contribute to promoting stability in the region which has been swept by the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Gèl naturally took the occasion to remind Obama of the need for an official Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara incident. Referring to the need for an official apology for the Mavi Marmara incident, Gèl responded that Israel is well aware of the steps that have been taken, and that if Israel takes these steps, Turkey will act accordingly.
The evidence, thus, indicates that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party government, which may have initiated the mounting antagonism between Ankara and Tel Aviv two years ago, is now the more eager of the two to mend fences. Fully aware of this, Israel was quick to take advantage and did so by approaching the Greek-Cyprus duo in order to trigger a new conflict.
News sources have revealed details about a defence treaty between Israel and Cyprus (officially referred to by Turkey as southern or Greek Cyprus, which Turkey does not recognise) which was signed during a visit by Netanyahu to the divided island on 16 February. During that visit, Cypriot President Demitris Kristofias asked the Israeli prime minister to increase Israeli investment in Cyprus. Netanyahu's response was to insist on permission to establish a naval and air force base there.
According to a news analysis in a Turkish newspaper, Israel wants to deploy 20,000 commandos in Southern Cyprus in order to protect the crude oil pipeline that Israel plans to construct in the Eastern Mediterranean and to ensure the security of the natural gas station at Vasiliko in Limasol. The article, appearing in Vatan, cited unidentified sources as saying that these measures are part of a greater plan to build a second Israel in the Middle East. It adds that Jewish businessmen have bought large areas of land in northern Cyprus (referred to as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which only Ankara recognises) through bogus companies in that part of Cyprus. "They have already inaugurated a Jewish temple in one of the villages, affixed a sign in Hebrew and appointed a rabbi for it," the source is quoted as saying.
Decision-makers in Turkey are aware that European governments and the US are not unconnected with these ambitions and, indeed, have been encouraging Israel to take hostile steps against their country. That Israel has been building partnerships with countries in the Balkans and in the Caucasus has heightened suspicions that it is constructing a web around Anatolia. "These moves are indicative of carefully studied plans that are being implemented if not in order to dominate then at the very least in order to capitalise on the energy sources along the old Silk Road," a source said.
Returning to the question of Cyprus, could it indeed propel Turkey to clash with Tel Aviv? There is no doubt that Turkish opinion at the official and popular level feels strongly about the issue, so the answer could be yes. But a central problem is the balance of military might between the two countries, which weighs against Ankara and which would give Israel the preponderance in a military clash.
It would seem in Turkey's interest not to escalate, but rather to show more flexibility in order to turn over a page that it is keener than others to put behind it. Therefore, threatening to annex northern Cyprus to Turkey, as Turkish Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis did, is bound to backfire. Wavering to act on this threat would only diminish the credibility of the Turkish government before the Turkish people and the rest of the world. The same would apply with the regard to the threat to freeze relations with the EU in the event that Cyprus assumes the presidency of the EU parliament 1 July.