A Geopolitical Triangle: Israel, Greece And Cyprus Lay Foundations For New Level Of Regional Cooperation
Alan Schneider, Director, B’nai B’rith World Center – Jerusalem
Over the last two months, B’nai B’rith International has been at the cusp of an important emerging diplomatic development in the turbulent area of the Eastern Mediterranean—the establishment of a regional geopolitical consensus among the only three stable democracies in the area: Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
As other countries in the area, including Libya, Syria and Lebanon, deteriorate into chaos and as the United States continues to reduce its footprint in the region leaving open a vacuum that is being filled by other state and non-state players, the emerging partnership among these three countries, nurtured by their respective political leaders—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades—holds out the prospect for ensuring a degree of stability and security in what has become the world’s most volatile neighborhood.
B’nai B’rith’s most recent contribution to this welcome development—after decades during which Greece and Cyprus were firmly in the pro-Palestinian camp—came on Feb. 17 and Feb. 18 when it co-organized an international conference entitled “Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean” together with the eminent Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. While conference presenters also discussed broader historical, superpower and regional perspectives, the meeting provided a platform for leading Israeli, Greek and Cypriot figures—including Greek Minister of Defense Panos Kammenos, Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Israel Ministry of Defense Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, Former Israel National Security Advisor Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former Greek Minister of Internal Security Vasilis Kikilias and long-serving DCM at the embassy of Cyprus in Tel Aviv Michalis Firillas—to focus on the interplay between these three key countries.
The conference came on the heels of B’nai B’rith’s most recent engagement with the tripartite Israeli-Greek-Cypriot relationship when it organized the second Greek American-Jewish American Leadership Mission to the three countries held in January in cooperation with the Conference of Presidents and two leading Greek American organizations. Taken together, the mission, which included meetings with the leaders of all three countries, and the conference helped to buttress one of the few promising signs of good neighborly relations in a region overrun with strife and rivalry
In opening comments, B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin set the tone of the conference by correctly noting that the situation in the region is deteriorating quickly and that as possible solutions to stemming that tide seem far out of reach “some countries in the region are taking matters into their own hands, looking to forge joint efforts to stabilize the regional environment. The [historic] signal sent by the leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus when they signed a joint cooperation declaration last month was unmistakable…The Tripartite Summit comes against the back-drop of chaos and uncertainty that it roiling the region. The list of challenges and threats is lengthening: ISIS and a coterie of Islamic radical and terrorist organizations, the break-up of Syria and Iraq, the problems in Sinai and Yemen, and the on-going presence and continuing militarization of Hezbollah and Hamas. And then there is the growing Russia factor. And casting a shadow over all of this is the re-entry of Iran into the international community, flush with cash as a result of the nuclear agreement, and which will surely increase efforts to advance its interests, and its hegemonistic aspirations in the region.”
In the absence of credible international initiatives to stem the tide of instability, the joint declaration stressed that the new trilateral cooperation is not closed to other countries with similar goals. Egypt and even Turkey—a country whose behavior and regional aspirations loomed over the conference—could find their way into the club, as could countries further afield in the Mediterranean, such as Italy.
Granted, Minister Kammenos and other speakers asserted that Turkey’s policies in this unstable region have been harmful to bringing about regional stability. However, Turkey is now seeking allies as its foreign relations with all bordering countries disintegrates, and as it faces a new superpower enemy, Russia, Whether that would open the door for Turkey to be part of this alignment in the eastern Mediterranean has yet to be seen.
In an article entitled “A new geopolitical bloc is born” published in the Jerusalem Post just following the conference, former Israeli ambassador to Greece, Arye Mekel—a conference participate and current Sadat-Begin Center researcher who was present at a chance meeting in a Moscow restaurant between Netanyahu and then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou that broke the ice between the two countries in 2009—wrote that the flurry of diplomatic activity between Jerusalem, Athens and Nicosia over the last month, including reciprocal visits by ministers of defense, heads of state and full-blown joint cabinet meetings, suggests the emergence of a new geopolitical bloc in the region. “This sharp uptick of diplomatic activity is not taking place in a vacuum. Each participant has his own aims and calculations in mind, and in the background loom their countries’ respective relationships with Turkey,” Mekel wrote, noting that since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident (in which a government-supported anti-Israel Turkish organization tried to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza, resulting in the death of nine Turkish Islamists when the boat was intercepted by Israeli SEALS that led to the cancellation of Israeli air force flights over Turkey), the IAF has been utilizing Greek airspace instead for flight and training missions.
The Tripartite Summit comes against the back-drop of chaos and uncertainty that it roiling the region. The list of challenges and threats is lengthening: ISIS and a coterie of Islamic radical and terrorist organizations, the break-up of Syria and Iraq, the problems in Sinai and Yemen, and the on-going presence and continuing militarization of Hezbollah and Hamas.
– Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin at the “Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean”
While the two countries have been conducting a series of joint air and naval exercises annually, defense collaboration is just one of many new areas of cooperation between these new partners. Other dimensions include plans for joint development of the proximate significant natural gas fields discovered in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Israel and Cyprus that could be transported to an energy-hungry European market through Greece, the sharing of Israel’s impressive success in entrepreneurship and economic development and in the promotion of Greece and Cyprus as welcoming tourist destinations for vacationing Israeli who used to fill the hotels of Antalya until relations with Turkey went sour.
In the diplomatic field, Greece has already proven to be a reliable ally of Israel at the European Union, leading opposition to the EU’s initiative to label settlement products in a grossly discriminatory manner and to a resolution that would have committed the EU to continue to clearly and unequivocally differentiate between Israel and the disputed territories. Greece’s rejection of labeling and successful efforts to amend the resolution, later joined by Cyprus, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland, represent a sharp and welcome departure from past Greek policy within the EU.
With Israel now ranked as eighth most powerful country in the world (in a study published in late January by the prestigious Wharton School and U.S. News and World Report) this alliance also has clear benefits for Greece and Cyprus.
Mekel says that stronger tripartite relations may also serve to encourage Turkey to show more flexibility in negotiations regarding normalization of ties between Ankara and Jerusalem. He also believes that the hardiness of the relationships has already been tested, withstanding three changes of government in Greece—from Papandreou’s Socialists, to the Conservative government of Antonis Samaras and through to the two successive governments of current prime minister Tsipras from the Left-wing Syriza party that was very critical of Israel in the past. It also weathered unscathed the unanimous vote by the Greek parliament in December calling on the government to recognize the State of Palestine—a nonbinding resolution condemned by the Israeli government as being contrary to existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that rule out unilateral steps towards Palestinian statehood. In the case of Cyprus, the defense relationship between the two countries started under left-oriented President Demetris Christofia, and continues at full speed under current conservative leader Anastasiades.
As Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the summit in Nicosia on Jan. 28, the meeting of interests between the three countries is indeed remarkable: “I believe this meeting has historic implications. The last time Greeks, Cypriots and Jews sat around a table and talked on a common framework was 2,000 years ago.” Coupled with reported engagement between Israel and some Gulf States in reaction to common fears of both ISIS and a nuclear Iran following the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and plans to launch a major reengagement with African countries announced last week during the visit of Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta to Israel that reportedly include military dimensions to help these countries counter Iranian and radical Islamic expansion in the continent, it would seem that Israel is anything but isolated in today’s complex geopolitical environment.
While multiple threats remain the government seems agile in taking advantage of changing landscapes to position Israel as a pivotal country for all peace-seeking countries within a wide radius, not only because of its geographical placement but also because of its proven capabilities and success against all odds.