Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid are set to have a landmark meeting in New York tomorrow as the US decision to lift arms embargoes against Cyprus has added a fresh strain in already high-running Eastern Mediterranean tensions.
The two leaders’ meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, will mark the first of its kind since 2008, after a series of rapprochement steps between Israel and Turkey — the latest of which came today when Israel appointed Irit Lillian, Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara since early 2021, as the new ambassador to Turkey. The two countries decided to fully restore their diplomatic ties last month after years of locking horns. Ahead of tomorrow's meeting, Erdogan today met with Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and other leaders of the American Jewish community.
The rapprochement came as part of Ankara’s intensified efforts to mend ties with its former regional rivals partly in a bid to counterbalance their increasing cooperation with Greece and Cyprus.
Escalating tensions between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean over conflicting territorial claims are expected to be among the agenda items during the meeting tomorrow as Turkey is seeking to position itself as an energy corridor to carry Israeli gas to Europe after the war in Ukraine.
Washington’s decision last week to fully lift the arms embargoes against Cyprus is poised to fuel tensions further as Cyprus has long been seeking to acquire Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system — a joint Israeli-US production. Washington’s decision to fully revoke the embargoes last week has paved the way for a potential sale under the condition of the US approval for the export.
Turkey “strongly condemned” the decision on Sept 17, calling on Washington to “reconsider this decision and to pursue a balanced policy towards the two sides on the island.”
The US has imposed arms embargoes against Cyprus since 1987 to prevent further escalation between the rival governments of the island which remains ethnically divided between Turkish and Greek Cypriots since Turkey’s military intervention in 1974.
In 1998, Greek Cypriots’ purchase of S-300 missile defense systems from Russia brought rival Cypriot governments, as well as Greece and Turkey, on the brink of war. Under strong pressure from Washington, Greek Cypriots were unable to activate the system and deploy the system’s batteries on the Greek island of Crete.
Ironically, the tables have now turned against Turkey, which was hit by American sanctions for its own purchase of Russian S-400 missile system. Excluded from the F-35 program, Ankara is now banking on the Biden administration’s support to secure Congressional approval for sale of new F-16s and modernization kits from the United States.
Erdogan today met with Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who promised “to do everything in his power” to support the Turkish F-16 bid.
Yet, the ties between the Turkish government and the administration risk sweeping into a fresh downward spiral should Turkey delay Finland and Sweden’s NATO memberships. Ahead of his visit to New York, Erdogan renewed his threat to block the alliance's enlargement should the Nordic countries fail to fulfill their promise to address Turkey’s national security concerns.