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Israel, Cyprus Discuss Redrawing Lines in Huge Mediterranean Natural Gas Field

Discreet diplomatic discussions on amending Israel and Cyprus’ maritime boundary that runs through the shared Aphrodite/Yishai natural gas field underneath the eastern Mediterranean Sea are moving forward.

In recent days, Israeli diplomats held talks on the issue with Cypriot experts, a person in Cyprus with knowledge of issue told The Media Line: “There is a willingness to proceed and this is not an obstacle to our relationship.”

The field is estimated to contain between 3.6 trillion and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but has yet to be commercially exploited because of the boundary dispute.

The current boundary was set in 2010, when Cyprus demarcated its Exclusive Economic Zone with Israel. The agreement, however, was signed before the full discovery of the field’s reserves, of which Israel was subsequently found to have some 10%, said to be worth more than $1.5 billion, in its Yishai field.

The search for a solution to the disagreement over the Aphrodite field’s commercial development would not only benefit Cyprus and Israel financially, but it also provides a glimpse into Turkey’s relationship with Israel and thus, potentially, with the United States.

“International relations are about interests. Everyone has interests, not enemies. There are many economic interests for the mutual benefits of Israel and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean,” Prof. Cihat Yayci, president of Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University’s Maritime and Global Strategies Center and a retired rear admiral, told The Media Line.

Earlier this week, he published a paper in Turkeyscope, a periodical of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, calling on Israel and Turkey to negotiate a separate maritime demarcation line deal, cutting out Cyprus and giving Israel near-full sovereignty over the Aphrodite hydrocarbon resources.

“Israel lost 4,600 square kilometers in its [2010] agreement with Cyprus. In a deal with Turkey – completely based on logical international maritime sovereignty principles – Israel would reap 16,000 square kilometers while Turkey will benefit with 10,000 square kilometers. It is a win-win for all parties,” Yayci said.

It is logical for Israel to come to the negotiating table with Turkey on this issue

Yayci, the architect of Turkey’s 2019 maritime jurisdiction agreement with Libya, posits that because Israel’s and Turkey’s coasts are positioned opposite each other, a clear diagonal zone is created and they share a maritime border and therefore can claim rights to resources on or below the ocean floor in the area.

“It is logical for Israel to come to the negotiating table with Turkey on this issue. We are two coastal countries in the eastern Mediterranean,” Yayci stated.

According to Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, editor of Turkeyscope, this proposal could be part of a Turkish attempt to curry favor with the incoming Biden Administration in the US.

Reports earlier said that Turkish and Israeli intelligence officials met, not necessarily regarding intelligence issues, but rather on mending diplomatic fences.

This, together with the offer to improve better maritime jurisdiction lines by Yayci, a former chief of staff of Turkey’s Naval Forces Command, demonstrates Turkey’s rapprochement policy as it looks toward relations with the US under a new president, Cohen Yanarocak said.

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is likely looking toward normalization of relations with Israel, especially since Turkey and Israel do not currently have ambassadors in the other country,” he told The Media Line.

“There are three ticking time bombs regarding Turkey on President-elect Joe Biden’s table,” said Cohen Yanarocak.

“First are the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in Turkey’s possession, for which the US can place sanctions on Turkey using CAATSA,” the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, he said.

President Donald Trump has not sanctioned Turkey despite his ability, and some say his obligation under US law, to do so.

“Second is the ongoing investigation and potential sanctions for the state-owned Halkbank bank due to its circumventing sanctions against Iran and doing business there,” Cohen Yanarocak continued.

“And last, there is a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. This has been waiting on the US president’s desk for a signature,” he said.

If Turkey can normalize its relationship with Israel, thereby becoming closer to one of the United States’ important regional allies, Cohen Yanarocak said, it believes that it can allay some of these US concerns.

Turkey’s Cypriot community in 1983 unilaterally declared independence, forming the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a sovereign entity recognized only by Turkey. Cypriot Turks and Cypriot Greeks have for decades been at odds with each other regarding sovereignty of the island.

Prof. Andreas Theophanous, head of the department of politics and governance at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, called Yayci’s arguments and Turkey’s recent moves “hybrid warfare against Cyprus.”

“They are using subtle messages in their communications and public relations to change the narrative. Turkey is trying to change the rules of the game,” he said.

In a recent article, “Erdoğan’s Picnic in Varosha,” Theophanous wrote, “Erdoğan’s new declarations confirm once more Turkey’s revisionist policies,” referring to the Turkish president’s mid-November visit to the abandoned and fenced southern quarter of the city of Famagusta, in Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus, adjacent to the border with the Republic of Cyprus.

Turkey’s presence on Cyprus is a major issue for peace, the professor told The Media Line. “It would not be an exaggeration to call Turkey’s moves on Cyprus the same as the Nazis taking over of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland in 1938. Today the EU is asleep and has many shortcomings in regard to this issue.”

Theophanous, though, is not worried about the maritime talks with Israel regarding the natural gas reserves in Cyprus’ EEZ.

“I believe they will come to an agreement,” he told The Media Line.

An official in Israel’s Energy Ministry would not comment on the timing of discussions but told The Media Line: “We are talking with the Cypriots and it is moving forward. Negotiations are not stuck.”

Alan Baker, former legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and now a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that if Israel has issues with the Cyprus EEZ agreement it can ask for arbitration or seek to amend the accord.

Baker, who participated in forging the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention in 1982, told The Media Line that it is “standard practice in all international treaties that there is a cancel or amendment clause enabling the parties to amend or cancel an agreement. If you look at all international agreements you will find this.”

Adding a further dimension to the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean and the diplomatic dance between Israel and Cyprus, the Turkish Navy recently conducted surveys in the area searching for hydrocarbon deposits, angering Greece and NATO.