Mideast Briefing: A Presidential Visit

March 23rd, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

While worldwide attention focused on the conflict in Libya, ongoing strife in the Arab world, and the disasters striking Japan, important events took place in Israel that may reshape some of the political architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Demetris Christofias, President of the Republic of Cyprus, brought his Foreign and Trade ministers and some sixty businesspeople to Jerusalem. Formal accords were signed, one linking Tel Aviv University and the Cyprus Institute and one linking the stock exchanges of Tel Aviv and Nicosia. Other agreements enhance cooperation in energy, agricultural science and technology. Declaring his country’s support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Christofias expressed his county’s willingness to serve as a “bridge to advancing the peace process and economic and diplomatic cooperation with Europe.”

This is a serious statement, for if there is one country that punches significantly above its weight in size, population, and especially military power it is Cyprus - a country of some 800,000, whose unified National Guard has land and air capabilities, and an important seaborne component. Partially occupied by Turkish forces, the country’s ability to withstand an attack, according to its own security experts, is about two days at best. Yet Cyprus has become perhaps the quintessentially European Union country in the sense that it bases its capacity to defend itself not on military assets alone, but on its position within the EU and particularly on its historically well-honed talent for cooperating with like-minded neighbors.

The large natural gas reserves discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean are a particularly attractive foundation for the Cypriots to build upon as they seek to strengthen their relationship with Israel, preferably without sacrificing their friendly ties with such other regional states as Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. For Israel, the Cypriot connection - grounded in common economic interests and security concerns, historical and religious links, and day-commuter proximity - is notably enhanced by the fact that the two states’ natural gas fields abut each other.

From an Israeli perspective, an intensified relationship with Cyprus must also be viewed in the context of emerging or potential long-range challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean, long Israel’s main artery for commerce with the world. Israel has traditionally depended on the American Sixth Fleet for the security of those sea lanes, allowing it to focus its own small navy on elite commando operations as well as on anti-smuggling and coastal security; in a time of heightened U.S. budget pressures and evolving demands on Pentagon resources, Israeli planners are projecting the need for an expanded Mediterranean presence of their own.

Heightened focus on Mediterranean assets and relationships makes sense for two key reasons. First, in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians, even a partial one, Israel may be expected to lose at least some of its strategic depth on the West Bank. Under such circumstances, the sea offers reasonable alternatives - allowing for ship-based platforms for communications, early-warning, and weapons systems. Second, as evident in the disarray in nearly all Arab states, long-term planning in this region is growing more difficult, heightening the necessity to be prepared across a broad variety of defensive needs. Faced through much of its history with the possibility of sustained land assaults from areas stretching across the great expanse from North Africa to Iran, Israel has tended to focus on its land and air forces. Its defense intellectuals think it is high time to further develop defense advantages unique to the sea.

It does not appear that military considerations are driving the increasingly warm and wide-ranging relationship between Israel and Cyprus - nor between Israel and Greece, whose heads of government exchanged unprecedented state visits last year. Economic and energy imperatives are dominant, and regional political considerations are unavoidable. But Israel’s growing interest in naval options is compatible with perceived changes in the strategic thinking of Cyprus and Greece. And if enhanced ties to Cyprus and Greece lead to altered perceptions of Israel among decision-makers in Europe, this new constellation could add credibility to the EU as it strives to play a more central role in the peace process.

The vision expressed by President Christofias could develop into a reality that will work well for the peoples of Cyprus and Israel, and for the region as a whole.