AJC Mideast Briefing: Cyprus and Israel

April 13th, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

On behalf of the entire staff of AJC in Israel, I want to wish all of our friends a most happy Passover holiday.


Cyprus feels much like home to an Israeli: rocky hills; familiar food; same sea; and a similar existential sense of living on the edge of a volcano. Many Israelis have been to Cyprus for vacations or for business, and, because their own country lacks civil marriage, Cyprus provides a convenient foreign registrar. And more Cypriots are coming to Israel to play, tour, pray and seek medical care. The flight only takes forty minutes.

That being said, Israel and Cyprus have not been politically close until recently. While diplomats on both sides express regret that it has taken so long, the main reason lies in their different strategies for overcoming political isolation. Caught, in its early years, between NATO powers Greece and Turkey and unclear whether it wanted union with Greece - with which it has strong historic and cultural ties - or permanent independence, Cyprus sought wider associations. First it was membership in the nonaligned movement, and more recently a successful bid for membership in the EU.

Israel, another small country facing grave threats, never had the option of joining the nonaligned movement and probably has little chance of joining the EU (even if it wanted to, which is unclear). It sought alliances with outside Western powers, first France and then the United States. As it is hard to see these paradigms changing in the foreseeable future, Cyprus and Israel do not need each other in order to pursue their core survival strategies. However, in today’s rapidly shifting regional political landscape, both have much to gain from continuing to develop their relationship.

Economically and culturally, both are islands. To be sure, geographically Israel is part of the Asian mainland. However ethnically, and to a large extent economically, it might as well be an island. Given the conflict with the Palestinians, but only partially explicable in that context, Israel bears the brunt of widespread Jew-hatred at appalling levels among all the countries around it, part of a pattern of bigotry directed at non-Muslim minorities throughout the region. A finding from the February 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project asking about Jews–not Israelis–replicated previous findings: “In Arab nations, attitudes toward Jews remain extremely negative. More than 90% of Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians express unfavorable views toward Jews.”

To this underlying atmosphere of ill will we may add that, in their current state of economic development, the countries of the Levant (other than Turkey) offer only limited capacity for economic engagement with the advanced economies of Israel and Cyprus.

Trade between Cyprus and Israel has grown considerably in recent years and it vastly exceeds their trade with the rest of the region. The volume of trade between Israel and the Arab world did not even merit mention in the State Department’s December 2010 Background Note on Israel, while according to Cypriot statistics, trade with its half-dozen significant Arab partners comes to about one-sixth the trade it conducts with Israel. Then there is natural gas. Cyprus will begin exploratory drilling in October and hopes to have a reliable estimate of its natural-gas fields by January 2012. With or without significant Cypriot finds, the Israeli fields could provide a strong basis for further cooperation in liquefying Israeli gas and bringing it to world markets.

Militarily, neither Cyprus nor Israel enjoys the advantages that usually come with being an island. Cyprus is indeed surrounded by water, but its close proximity to Turkey coupled with that country’s overwhelming military superiority negates much of the strategic advantage. Turkey occupies the northern third of the island with secure access by sea and air. The Republic of Cyprus is the only EU country with territory under occupation. For decades its strategy has been to overcome military weakness by acquiring diplomatic stature and connections. Israel’s strategy has been to seek and maintain military superiority with two goals in mind: first, relative power is a disincentive to aggression, and second, when aggression proves unavailing the Arab world may reconsider, recognize the legitimacy of Israel, and make peace.

Cyprus and Israel have much to offer each other. They are countries whose economies offer important possibilities for further shared development. They are both nations without significant strategic depth, and each other’s adjoining waters can provide priceless strategic balance. One suspects that learning a measure of each other’s core defensive strategies could contribute to a peaceful resolution of both countries’ seemingly permanent crises.

However, relationships among people must deepen for international relations between nations to develop. Israel and Cyprus can do much more to exchange students, tourists, academics, ideas and cultural treasures. This also poses a challenge for world Jewry.

Fate brought the Cypriots of the Republic and the Jews into close proximity. Their relationship blossomed in recent years and gives every indication of continuing in that path. But to realize the true potential of deepened Cypriot-Israeli friendship and cooperation, we need to work harder.