Israel-Cyprus relations: Revolutionary alliance or negotiating tactic?

By Dan R.

The discovery of natural gas off the shores of Cyprus and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean has marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Middle East conflict. Reports began to surface last week, claiming that Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will discuss the stationing of Israeli fighter jets at a Cypriot airbase on his visit to the island nation on February 16. If such reports prove to be accurate, the event has the potential to be a revolutionary strategic alliance. However, the aforementioned discussions may in fact be purely an Israeli negotiating tactic in an effort to bridge the rift between it and its former ally Turkey.

The Middle East is widely known as the staging ground for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, there is a lesser known conflict, greatly overshadowed by that between Israel and her Arab neighbors – that which involves Turkey and Cyprus. The conflict between Turkey and Cyprus, like the Arab-Israeli, also has a history of bloody confrontation on religion, ethnicity, territory and recognition. However, the aspect that reaches headlines above all others is the ongoing dispute over natural gas deposits that lay off the Cypriot southern coast. The discovery launched a thus far rhetorical battle over drilling rights between Greek Cyprus and Turkey as the patron of the Greek Republic’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot counterpart.

American-operated natural gas exploration site Noble Ferrington

Israel has developed and maintained several natural gas drilling and pumping platforms in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in its Exclusive Economic Zone. Moreover, Israeli companies, such as Delek, own a significant share of drilling platforms in Cyprus. Israel thus, likely sees the natural gas reserves as a strategic asset that is vital to ensure Israel’s economic and energy independence.

Israel is well known for its determination and dedication with regard to the protection of its interests positioned outside its borders. That said, the stationing of a permanent air force operation base on foreign soil would essentially be a revolution in Israeli military affairs. If the reports are true, this will be the first time that Israel will deploy IDF airmen outside the borders of Israel (not including Palestinian territories), a step that would likely require legislative action.

When examining the tactical, operational, and strategic military benefits for a deployment of fighter jets in Cyprus, one would have to assess the constant parameters, like the distance from drilling and pumping platforms, coupled with reaction and flight time. Upon their inspection, one would discover that the distance to such drilling installations from either the Cypriot or Israeli air bases is negligible. The similar distances thus make the disproportion in reaction and flight time only a matter of a few seconds, and therefore, providing no significant tactical, operational, or strategic benefits.

However, after dismissing the aforementioned, a greater hidden agenda must be examined. The deployment of Israeli aircrafts on Cypriot soil has considerable weight on the diplomatic, political, and rhetorical aspects of the deteriorated relations between Turkey and Israel. Since the Gaza flotilla incident, diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel declined to a point that the Turks made threats to take military action against any threat on a second flotilla. This unfortunate turn of events lead to the reaffirmation of the strategic security relations between Israel, Greece and Cyprus; essentially forming a de facto military alliance.

The formation of a pact between such states that feel threatened by Turkish maneuvering can serve to act as the counter weight to Turkish regional aspirations. As a united front, the new alliance would not likely accept or fall in line with Ankara’s dictates. Furthermore, the Turkish government refuses to recognize natural gas partnership of Israel and Greek Cyprus as long as it comes at the expense of the breakaway Turkish Republic on the island nation.

The simple mention of the deployment of Israeli fighter jets may alone be perceived by Turkey as a threat to its regional hegemonic objectives. Such a veiled Israeli threat may in fact provide Turkey the realization that good relations with Israel would likely benefit those objectives in the long term. Should relations once again begin to warm, Israel would likely reexamine their need to station its fighter jets on Cypriot waters, thus allowing Turkey to continue its hegemonic goals and restoring the relative power balance that existed in the region.

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