M K Bhadrakumar, writing in The Asia Times (via NOW Lebanon) assesses that Israel has given up on Turkey as its largest and most powerful regional ally, and has transferred its diplomatic allegiance and political friendship to Cyprus and Greece.
This makes sense for a number of reasons: Turkey, ever since Prime Minister Erdogan came to power, has wrapped itself in a much stronger Muslim identity and thus become much more hostile to Israel, aggravated by Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and the Mavi Marmara incident, followed by Turkey’s demand that Israel apologise, and Israel’s refusal to do so. Cyprus and Greece, being rivals to Turkey for decades, especially since Turkey’s invasion of northern Cyprus in the 1970s, are only too happy to draw closer to Israel, both to be in direct opposition to whatever Turkey does, and to benefit from Israel’s excellent economic status.
This new close relationship benefits Israel too because of the recent natural gas finds in the Mediterranean in the waters between Cyprus and Israel. An alliance between the countries will prevent Turkey from trying to intervene and grab the oil and gas for themselves. Cyprus and Greece’s membership in the EU can also work to Israel’s advantage.
The Kurds enter this picture being natural enemies of both Turkey and Syria, who are both hostile to Israel to one degree or another, this being the case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
Israel has all but concluded that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is disinterested in reviving strategic ties between the two countries. This used to be a relationship that Israel desperately wanted to keep going as it was ideologically and politically useful, having been a unique one with a major Muslim power, and also highly lucrative, Turkey being a receptive market for Israeli goods and services, civilian and military.
At the root of it also lies the historic turnaround in Turkey’s regional policies and its assertive claim to regain its Ottoman legacy in the Muslim Middle East, which puts it at odds with a range of Israeli core interests and vital concerns. Israel is now moving on with life, turning a new leaf in its regional policy, almost accepting that the relationship with Turkey is probably irretrievably lost unless there is a regime change in Ankara and the Islamist ruling party loses power.
True to style, Israel is looking around the region for comfort and companionship with anyone who might also have an intractable problem with Turkey – it didn’t have to look far across the Mediterranean.
The two-day visit by the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, to Tel Aviv, which ended on Thursday, was much more than a routine call. The minister had just assumed charge in Nicosia and headed for Israel as soon as her customary first visit to Athens was out of the way.
Quite obviously, Nicosia and Athens (which has an ancient grudge to settle with Ankara) put their heads together and assessed that Israeli regional policies are on a remake. Cyprus and Greece have had indifferent ties with Israel, but a compelling commonality of interests is sailing into view. A realignment of regional powers is taking place in the eastern Mediterranean, the leitmotif being the “containment” of an increasingly assertive Turkey.
The backdrop is easy to understand. Cyprus contracted American oil company Noble Energy to prospect for gas in 350,000 hectares in the eastern Mediterranean, bordering Israel’s economic zone where significant gas deposits have been discovered.
But Turkey butted in, saying the hydrocarbon resources also belonged to northern Cyprus (which has been under Turkish occupation since 1974) and Nicosia didn’t have the right to exploit resources that belonged to Turkish Cypriots. Turkey threatened to intervene.
Regarding Kozakou-Marcoullis’ mission to Tel Aviv, the Foreign Ministry in Nicosia said on Tuesday, “Particular emphasis will be placed in cooperation between Cyprus and Israel in energy issues, and the recent developments in the wider region.” Nicosia factored in that the minister would receive a warm welcome in Tel Aviv, which she did from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
The statement issued by Netanyahu’s office virtually underscored that Israel has a convergence of interests with Cyprus with regard to Ankara’s perceived belligerence. Netanyahu said Israel and Cyprus had “overlapping interests”. The statement said Netanyahu discussed with Kozakou-Marcoullis “the possible expansion of energy cooperation given that both countries have been blessed with natural gas reserves in their maritime economic zones”.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told Kozakou- Marcoullis that Israel “welcomed the exclusive economic zone agreement that was signed between the two countries … [and] that this was a bilateral issue that must be implemented as soon as possible to enable the initiation of the gas production process for the benefit of both parties and that the agreement was signed in accordance with the rules and rights of international law.”
The Israelis are pinning their hopes on Cyprus turning out to be a prize catch, being a member of the European Union, which works by consensus and is shortly expected to evolve a common stance apropos the expected Palestinian move at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York in September, seeking recognition for their “state”.
This explosive diplomatic issue haunts Tel Aviv (and Washington) and the stance that Cyprus takes at Brussels could be a diplomatic windfall when the mood in Europe is increasingly empathizing with the Palestinian case for statehood.
Turkey, on the other hand, has taken a firm stand supportive of the Palestine cause. Indeed, the first fracture appeared in the architecture of Turkey-Israel ties when Erdogan snubbed Peres in front of television cameras at the Davos forum some two years ago during a debate on the Palestine problem.
Meanwhile, Israeli commentators have also begun rattling Turkey’s nerves, already somewhat frayed, over the furious return of Kurdish militancy. Israeli intelligence and businessmen have longstanding contacts with the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.
Interestingly, Iran has highlighted lately that Israel could be stirring up the Kurdish pot for Turkey and, therefore, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus would have shared interests in countering the Kurdish separatism that threatened all three countries. Leading Israeli defense specialist David Eshel commented in August about the upsurge of Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s eastern provinces:
The entire Kurdish people could take advantage of the ongoing Arab Spring and prepare the ground for a long-anticipated Kurdistan, linking up with Iraq’s ongoing autonomy, the Iranian Kurdish enclave and perhaps even the Syrian Kurdish minorities … With the Arab world in total turmoil, lacking any orderly leadership, the Kurds could finally achieve their sacred goal for independence, after decades, if not centuries of desecration and oppression … the ongoing “Arab Spring” could eventually shift into a “Kurdish Summer”.
The most devastating part of Eshel’s commentary is his analysis that with the acute ongoing confrontation between the civilian government of Erdogan and the Turkish military, the latter’s professionalism and intelligence-gathering capabilities have suffered a severe setback and the Turkish General Staff realizes that any military action in the Kurdish regions would be a “high-risk operation”.
Eshel anticipated with an ominous overtone that a criticality might be reached soon if Turkish Kurds merged with the seasoned Iraqi Peshmerga militia numbering more than 100,000 fighters. He warned, “Erdogan is facing his yet most difficult challenge.” Given Israel’s close links with the Kurdish Peshmerga going back decades, Israel could be signaling to Ankara at various levels that it has the means to hit back at Erdogan.
Israeli interests fundamentally lie in creating rifts in Turkey’s relations with Iran and its “diplomacy” toward Ankara is constantly working in this direction. The paradox, however, is that Israel knows that neither Ankara nor Tehran can afford any serious drift to develop in their relationship at this juncture in regional politics. But the Israelis are adept at turning paradoxes to their advantage.
The Kurdish problem exposes fault lines that cut across Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in the region. Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus have a convergence of interests regarding Kurdish separatism despite being on different sides of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide.
Israel estimates, however, that the Kurdish problem makes Ankara vulnerable to American and European pressure tactic and an exacerbation of this could politically weaken Erdogan and bring him to his knees.
Turkish public opinion is becoming concerned about national security and the government’s handling of the Kurdish problem. At a delicate time in Turkish politics when Erdogan is navigating himself with gusto to assume office as the head of state in a new French-style presidential system of government, he cannot afford to be seen as ineffectual in meeting the Kurdish challenge.
He has opted for a firm military response. But in Eshel’s estimation, the weakened Turkish military will meet more than a match in the Kurdish mountains and the assertive Turkish leadership may well find itself in a quagmire.
Interesting times in a fascinating region: never a dull moment – that’s for sure.