Israel's double game with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean

Tel Aviv seeks to rebuild diplomatic relations with Ankara while strengthening ties with Greece and Cyprus
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias receives his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz

PHOTO/AP  -   Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias receives his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz before their meeting in Athens on Thursday 31 October 2019

The trilateral military cooperation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus, initiated in November 2017, has all the necessary components to play a decisive long-term role in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Disagreements over who can exploit the gas in the Mare Nostrum have increased tensions in the region and made it difficult to resolve the Libyan conflict. Thus, the future of this area depends on Turkey's movements and on the decisions of this trilateral military cooperation, a collaboration that has been strengthened in recent months to deal with Ankara's presence in the region. In this scenario, the Greek Ministry of National Defence has announced that it will rent drones to Israel, in order to reinforce security on its borders; at the same time, the country led by Reuven Rivlin is planning to rebuild its diplomatic relations with the Eurasian nation.

In early May, representatives of the Greek and Israeli governments signed an agreement for the supply of Heron I unmanned aerial systems (UAS) configured for maritime surveillance missions. The agreement covers three years of service, including the training of Greek operators. This system will mainly deal with border security and maritime surveillance, according to Defense Update. "Security cooperation between Israel and Greece is expanding," said the head of the directorate for international cooperation in defence-related matters (SIBAT) and brigadier general Yair Kulas. "This is a clear expression of confidence in the capabilities and strength of the Israeli defence industry. We look forward to signing additional agreements with Greece, as well as with other European partners, helping them to meet security challenges," he emphasized. 

Línea de montaje de Vehículos Aéreos no Tripulados
REUTERS/BAZ RATHER - Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) assembly line seen at the offices of the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) near Or Yehuda, Israel

This agreement is the result of Athens' concern about Turkish drone activity in the Aegean. In recent years, Turkey has developed and deployed several types of drones that have played an increasingly important role in surveillance and combat operations in the region, primarily in the face of the fighting in Syria and Libya, according to the specialized web portal Defense One. A week ago, the foreign ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates denounced in an official statement the "continuing illegal activities" by Ankara in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus and its territorial waters, a document which, however, Israel did not sign.

"We are only members of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which is based in Cairo. That declaration had two themes, one of which was Libya. We have never discussed anything related to a maritime delimitation agreement with Turkey, even in the days of bilateral relations in the 1990s, the reports are complete nonsense," an Israeli official told the Russian TRT agency. It should be recalled at this point that in January 2019, Cyprus, Greece and Israel, together with Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Italy, created the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, an organization that aims to coordinate gas policies.

Mini vehículos aéreos no tripulados (UAS)
AFP/ JACK GUEZ - ThunderB (above) and Spylite, mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAS), from the Israeli company BlueBird are exhibited during the 8th International Unmanned Systems Conference and Exhibition (UVID)

This region of the Mediterranean has been a historical focus of tension due to its geopolitical importance. On the one hand, it is the gateway to the Red Sea through Egypt and, on the other, the entrance to Europe. Although the links between European countries and other countries in the south and east of the Mediterranean go back several centuries, the discovery of large gas deposits by Israel, Egypt and Lebanon in 2009 has increased uncertainty in the area. The natural gas reserves that have been found over the last decade have begun to be exploited by some of the countries in the region such as Egypt or Israel, which already use these fields for domestic consumption or to export gas to neighbouring countries. 

Foro de Gas del Mediterráneo Oriental
AFP/KHALED DESOUKI - Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Greek Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis and Egyptian Oil Minister Tarek el-Molla sign the agreement during the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo on 16 January 2020
When the enemy of my enemy is my friend

At the same time, the Israeli government is seeking to re-establish diplomatic relations with Turkey through the possible designation of ambassadors, an Israeli official has specified to the Middle East Eye newspaper. Natural gas supplies in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria are two of the issues that could promote this collaboration. "The same Iranian proxy known as Hezbollah is challenging Turkey's soldiers in Idlib, and our soldiers in southern Syria. This is a matter of common interest, as well as energy," the same official told the aforementioned newspaper. In the same interview, the spokesman explained that Turkey maintains an ambassador to Greece despite increasing diplomatic tensions, similar to what is happening with the United Arab Emirates.

Relations between Turkey and Israel were frozen in 2010 after Israel's violent incursion into a Turkish aid ship called the Mavi Marmara, in which at least ten people were killed. The Mavi Marmara was part of the First Freedom Flotilla and was heading for Gaza when it was attacked by Tel Aviv. The bloody event led to the withdrawal of diplomatic envoys from both sides, dealing a serious blow to their bilateral relations. After several years of diplomatic absence, in 2016 both countries announced the "normalization" of their diplomatic relations. However, Turkey and Israel have not had ambassadors in their respective capitals since the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, which led to massive protests by Palestinians, according to the Middle East Eye. 

barco turco Mavi Marmara
AFP/FREE GAZA MOVEMENT - An archival photo shows an undated image taken from the website of the Movement for a Free Gaza on 28 May 2010 of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara participating in the "Freedom Flotilla" to the Gaza Strip

The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the rapprochement between the two nations. In recent weeks, Israel has helped Turkey deliver a shipment of medical aid to the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, according to this newspaper. The two countries have strengthened their ties at a time when they have faced a common threat, and the conflict in Syria, the coronavirus pandemic or the deepening rivalry within the Gulf has completely changed the context of relations between these two powers. For this rapprochement to take place, however, there must be a mutual willingness to reconcile. 

Following the Mavi Marmara incident and the estrangement between the two countries, Israel has sought various allies in the region in order to benefit from the gas fields that have appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Greece. "The deepening of Greek-Israeli relations is based on the great potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in several sectors, such as the economy, trade, tourism, investment, agricultural development, defence, technology, energy, environment, maritime transport and education," the Greek Foreign Ministry said on its official website."The multiple cooperation between the two countries aims to promote development and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. This cooperation does not exclude or target any third party, although it is dictated by the multiple security problems in the region," they claim.

El buque de perforación turco Yavuz
REUTERS/MURAD SEZER - Turkish drilling ship Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus on 6 August 2019

Moreover, in recent years, this relationship has been strengthened by the role of Cyprus. The defence ministers of the latter country, Israel and Greece met in the Greek capital Athens in 2017 and discussed the strengthening of cooperation to promote maritime and energy security, terrorism, stability and peace in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Cypriot Defence Minister stated that "Cyprus, Greece and Israel defend in this volatile and fragile region not only their common interests, but also the interests of Europe and those of the international community at large. Our vision is to gradually turn the wider region from an area of conflict into an area of peace, stability and cooperation," he specified, according to information gathered by an analysis prepared by European Security & Defence.

Therefore, the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey could jeopardize the future of this trilateral relationship. In recent years, Athens has gradually replaced Ankara as Tel Aviv's partner. However, Turkey is not willing to give up its leading role in the eastern Mediterranean and will continue to pursue its ambitions. In this context, the Eurasian nation does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus and maintains that the citizens of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state that only recognises Ankara, are entitled to a share of the island's gas resources. 

Plataforma Homer Ferrington de Noble
AFP/ CHRISTOS AVRAAMIDES / PIO - Noble's Homer Ferrington Platform, where hydrocarbon exploration drilling is taking place off Cyprus in the island's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

The desire to counteract Turkey's influence in the region has created the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of an alliance between Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel. In this scenario of uncertainty, it is possible that tensions will continue to rise and that the geopolitical map will change completely in just a few months. Whether Turkey, Israel or Greece, they are determined to defend their interests, even if this means turning the agreements signed over the last few years into a dead letter.