[Jerusalem] The city is teeming with Greeks, once a rare sight in the Israeli capital.
Officially, the “Second Trilateral Political Consultations at the level of Secretaries General” were addressing regional and international issues as varied as energy development, immigration, the war against terror, tourism, environment, water management, and collaboration in scientific research and technology.
Unofficially, they were ticking off the Turks.
Even less officially: Israel has new-found gas reserves it needs to sell, and a dwindling number of nearby customers.
The intriguing diplomatic dance first presented itself late Monday, when the spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry released a mysterious statement: “From the Foreign Ministry Director General Dr. Dore Gold: Israel has always aspired to stable relations with Turkey and constantly is constantly assessing the avenues to achieve this goal.”
Things began to fall into place when, a few hours later, the Government Press Office published a press release announcing a summit, in late January, 2016, between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and several of his ministers) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (and several of his ministers) “for talks centering on bilateral cooperation in – inter alia – defense, energy, tourism and innovation.”
At the same time, it announced that a tripartite summit would be held the following day in Nicosia, Cyprus, between Netanyahu, Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades. Wry Jerusalemites began joking about the boy-scout style Mediterranean island-hopping field trip to be enjoyed by “Bibi and Alexis.”
The two make an odd couple. Netanyahu is a stalwart right-winger with few regional friends. Tsipras was elected earlier this year in a wave of left-wing promises to fix Greece’s broken economy, and with longtime and fervent ties to Palestine. In fact, next week, on December 22, the Greek parliament is scheduled to vote on recognizing Palestinian statehood and upgrading Athens-Ramallah ties to full diplomatic status.
In the Mediterranean basin, this is akin to a new set of cool kids’ who barely know one another shunning the school’s former Big-Man-on-Campus (in this case, Turkey.)
For years, Greece and Israel had the worst of regional relations, with automatic Hellenic support for Palestinian petitions and Israeli anger at the regular flare-ups of Greek antisemitism.
Unexpectedly, under Tsipras public outbursts of anti-Israel sentiment have waned and the benefits of linking arms with the region’s economically robust Start-Up Nation have been brought to the fore.
The improvement of ties is remarkable: Tsipras visited Jerusalem for bilateral talks as recently as November 25th, 2015.
Turkey, a regional powerhouse, is the only Islamic state with which Israel has enjoyed normal diplomatic ties since its establishment, in 1948.
Those ties were strained almost to the point of snapping by the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, in which ten Turkish activists aboard a flotilla attempting to breech Israel’s blockade of Gaza were killed when the Israeli army raided the ship.
Israel, it appears, is looking for new friends. The original idea for an Israeli pivot away from the Middle East and towards Mediterranean and Baltic states, including Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and the Czech Republic, was conjured up by Israel’s former foreign minister and one-time Netanyahu rival Avigdor Lieberman.
In addition to looking for new diplomatic avenues, Israel now has gas to sell, from its off-shore Tamar and Leviathan fields. Turkey “has moved gas from the economic basket to the political one, and is saying it won’t buy Israeli gas,” says Alon Liel, a former ambassador to Turkey and senior Israeli foreign ministry official.
Egypt, another potential client, is embroiled in a legal battle with Israel’s electric corporation, that accuses it of being in arrears on old payments.
Netanyahu, in what Liel told The Media Line is “merely a tactical move,” is proposing a sub-Mediterranean pipeline carrying Israeli gas to Greece.
The scheme is unlikely to ever come to fruition. The impracticability of liquefying gas, building a deep-seawater pipeline and securing it, not to mention Greece’s economic precariousness, pose major obstacles. But for now, the idea has been floated.
“The differences in the relative importance of Turkey versus Greece and Cyprus notwithstanding, Israel clearly sees Greece and Cyprus as greatly balancing the damage caused by the ongoing depreciation of its relations with Ankara,” Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador and deputy director general of Foreign Ministry, in a paper entitled Active Israeli Policy in the Mediterranean Basin. “Nevertheless,” he continued, “it is important that Israel not abandon the effort to repair relations with Turkey.”
Turkey’s President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, a conservative nationalist who has kept Israel at arm’s length, is now trying to catch up. Speaking with reporters on a flight home from Turkmenistan, Erdogan said (also Monday) that “the entire region would benefit from normalization of ties” between Israel and Turkey.
“So much in the region could benefit from a process of normalization ,” he said, adding, “we have set three conditions: an apology – made; compensation – that has not happened, and ending the blockade on the Palestinians. If the issue of compensation and the closure will be resolved, we will enter a process of normalization.
Erdogan was making reference to an apology and an agreement for reparations made in March, 2013, at the behest of US President Barack Obama, who was then visiting Israel.
Almost immediately, a senior Israeli official rejected the approach, saying “we have nothing to talk about so long as he continues to set these conditions. It’s impossible.”