Israel hopes for EU leverage with East Mediterranean push
By Luke Baker
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel, Cyprus and Greece have agreed to deepen their energy, security and tourism ties in the Eastern Mediterranean, a deal that may have implications for Israel's testy relationship with the European Union, too.
The agreement, signed in Nicosia last week by a beaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greek premier Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, focussed on energy and the exploitation of natural gas deposits off Israel and Cyprus.
The Leviathan and Aphrodite fields are unlikely to start exporting before 2019 or 2020. Nevertheless, the ambition is to transport gas by pipeline, possibly via Turkey, or in liquefied form by ship to Europe, plugging the East Mediterranean into Europe's grid and providing an alternative to Russia - which has far worse relations with the EU due to the Ukraine crisis.
With global energy prices expected to remain low for some time, analysts question whether East Mediterranean gas will be the bonanza investors hope, but that didn't prevent the leaders singing the praises of their joint declaration.
"We live in a turbulent, fluid environment," said Netanyahu, emphasising working together on policies from tourism to water-management would make all three states stronger. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to advance our common goals," he said, adding: "We have been blessed with natural gas."
Israel and the two EU members all have sound commercial, defence and political reasons for closer cooperation.
As well as attracting more visitors and investment, Cyprus and Greece hope some of Israel's high-tech success will rub off on them and lift their economies, both bailed out by the EU and IMF. There's also Israeli know-how in defence, migration, cyber-security and counter-terrorism to draw on.
Israel hopes to sell its expertise in these areas, as well as gaining extra allies in a region where it feels isolated, with Syria at war on its northern border, Lebanon's Hezbollah a threat and ties with the Palestinians as troubled as ever.
Israel has already used the presence of a Russian-made air defence system located in Greece, which was originally supplied to Cyprus and traded to Athens, to train fighter pilots on how to thwart technology now being deployed in Syria.
There is also a more nuanced potential benefit for Netanyahu: more partners inside the EU who may be inclined to defend Israel's interests or at least not lean immediately towards the Palestinians on Middle East issues.
With France issuing an ultimatum to Israel at the weekend - saying it would recognise Palestine as a state if a new peace initiative doesn't succeed - Israel is hoping its new allegiances in the EU will help head off the French threat.
Greece has traditionally been pro-Palestinian and was expected to remain so when Tsipras, a leftist, was elected last year. The same went for Cyprus to an extent. But the Palestinians now regard both as having shifted allegiance.
"The emerging tripartite alliance ... weakens the strong and solid relationship that the Palestinian people have always maintained with Cyprus and Greece," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"As such, this agreement will only embolden Israel to pursue dangerous policies that have serious ramifications on the whole region. We call on Cyprus and Greece ... to maintain the earlier integrity of their support for the Palestinian cause."
In EU debates, Israel has traditionally looked to Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, among others, to protect its interests, including through using the veto that member states effectively have in foreign policy decisions.
With the new regional alliance, Greece and Cyprus may be more inclined towards Israel, which has also had some success at winning over Italy, another pro-Palestinian nation in the past.
When EU foreign ministers issued a hard-hitting statement on the Middle East peace process on Jan. 18, diplomats said the critical language towards Israel was softened slightly after Greece refused at first to sign off on it.
Relations between the EU and Israel remain rocky, notably over the European policy of labelling goods produced in Israeli settlements as coming from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem - lands the Palestinians seek for their own state - rather than as "Made in Israel".
But Netanyahu points out that while relations with the EU as a whole may need a "reset", those with a number of individual states are good. Israeli diplomats are fond of listing those they can count as friends and those they regard as unfriendly.
In looking to fend off France, it may need all the friends it can get.
(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by David Stamp)