Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Israel and Cyprus Strike Maritime Security Deal

Article Summary
In an unprecedented visit to Nicosia this week, Israeli PM Netanyahu signed a maritime security agreement with Cyprus. The signature comes in light of the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and marks a positive shift in Israeli-Cypriot relations. Helmi Moussa reports.

In a first, historical visit by an Israeli prime minister to the island of Cyprus - signaling the development of strategic relations between the two countries - Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu signed a military agreement offering reciprocal aid in search and rescue missions at sea. Netanyahu's visit to Cyprus aims to strengthen Israel's relations with European countries in order to compensate for the strategic ties it has lost with Turkey. Obviously, Israeli-Cypriot relations have found new ground in the wake of the discovery of gas and oil reserves in both of their maritime economic zones. Israeli and US companies, namely Noble Energy, have also made investments in these reserves.
As soon as Netanyahu arrived in [the Cypriot capital] Nicosia, a bilateral rescue agreement was signed whereby Israel's navy and air force will be allowed to use Cypriot waters and airspace in cases of emergency, and vice versa. However, many experts assert that this agreement is nothing but the tip of the iceberg for military and security understandings between the two countries, especially regarding the maritime protection of gas and oil extraction platforms. According to observers, this agreement would not have been concluded had it not been for the tensions plaguing Israeli-Turkish relations and strengthened ties between Israel and Greece. They point out that the agreement with Cyprus, which has become a member of the European Union, carries some kind of message to Iran. Netanyahu declared [in Cyprus] that "sanctions against Iran have not become effective yet," describing Iran as "the most irresponsible country in the world."

"I hope the sanctions will be effective, but they have been ineffective so far. We are dealing with a regime that violates every resolution and shows no respect for international standards," he added. Netanyahu noted that "The United States and every other country must be concerned over Iran’s race for nuclear weapons. The presence of nuclear arms in the hands of such a regime is a cause for great concern to both the US and Israel."

Netanyahu and his wife landed in Nicosia for a one-day visit [on February 16]. This is the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Cyprus since the declaration of the Jewish state in 1948 and the independence of Cyprus [in 1960]. Netanyahu immediately met with Cypriot President Christofias Dmitry. He will also meet with opposition leader Nikos Anastasiades and other Cypriot ministers in a bid to reinforce relations [between the two countries].

Israeli media explained that Netanyahu's visit to Cyprus aims to boost cooperation between the two countries in order to develop natural gas facilities and [advance] energy security in both countries. Moreover, economic issues were discussed, including a joint promotion of tourism and trade relations between the two countries, as well as cooperation in agriculture, health, and excavations in the Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli media previously noted that one of the objectives of the visit is to discuss the possibility of permanently deploying Israeli aircraft to military bases in Cyprus. But the Israeli presidential office denied that this idea was on the agenda, affirming that [the idea] was not even included in the agreements signed yesterday [February 17].

Israeli observers also note that after the reinforcement of strategic cooperation between Israel and Greece, cooperation between Israel and Cyprus became a possibility. They said that Greece has major influence on the policy of Cyprus, but the most important element [here] is that Cyprus and Israel today have a common opponent, [namely] Turkey and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially after [Israel’s] threats following the Mavi Marmara massacre [during the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla which confronted the Israeli blockade of Gaza] and the discovery of offshore gas.

Netanyahu said that his visit to Cyprus aims to promote the “normal relationship” [that already exists] between the two countries. He added: “I came here to strengthen our bilateral relations, economic ties, and relations in the energy sector”. He continued, “we are interested in developing peaceful relations in the interest of both countries and the region as a whole. We do not have any other motives or hidden ones”.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said that five of the twelve blocks in the gas fields, which Greek Cyprus asserts its right to own, overlap with Turkey’s continental shelf. The ministry said that Turkey “will take all necessary measures to protect its right to the sea areas that fall within its continental shelf”. Christofias said, “We are not the ones threatening Turkey. It is Turkey who is threatening us”. He added: “This is the problem. Turkey is the source of problems, rather than the [source of] cooperation between Israel and Cyprus”.

Many believe that the issue of the security of maritime gas installations was Netanyahu's top priority [during his] visit to Cyprus. Rumor has it that among the signed agreements, [there] is one pertaining to the protection of offshore installations. In recent weeks, Cypriot media outlets have said that Israel will ask Cyprus to build a stop area for Israeli military aircraft inside a military airport in Cyprus. Cypriot newspapers said that this request was made not only ahead of the Netanyahu's current visit, but also during the Cypriot Defense Minister’s visit to Israel about two months ago. However, the Cypriot press made no mention of whether the requested stop area will be permanent or [only] used when needed.

Clearly, economic, security, and military relations between Israel and Cyprus have significantly increased in the last two years. The relationship [between the two countries] also gained prominence in light of the discovery of gas, which imposed forms of security cooperation for the protection of offshore installations, and created common interests for future economic relations. It is possible that the most important project being discussed between Cyprus, Israel, and Greece is the one [involving] the extension of common lines for the transport of gas and electricity between these countries, and later to Europe, in the hope of completing a project for the production of electricity using natural gas.

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