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Herzog’s Upcoming Visits to Cyprus, Greece Are Damage Control as Israeli Ties With Turkey Improve
President Isaac Herzog, right, meets with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Jerusalem on December 7, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Herzog’s Upcoming Visits to Cyprus, Greece Are Damage Control as Israeli Ties With Turkey Improve

The timing of the Israeli president’s visits to Greece and Cyprus is likely intentional, experts say, ahead of a scheduled trip to Turkey

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog is scheduled to visit Greece on Thursday, followed by a visit to Cyprus on March 2, ahead of a reported visit later next month to Turkey. Herzog’s visits to Greece and Cyprus come following invitations by the presidents of both Mediterranean countries.

During his visit to Greece, Herzog is scheduled to hold diplomatic meetings with the country’s president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou; Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis; senior Greek officials; and members of the Greek Jewish community.

In Cyprus, Herzog is expected to meet with the country’s president, Nicos Anastasiades.

“Israel, Greece and Cyprus are partners in an alliance of stability in the Mediterranean,” Herzog said in a statement on Sunday.

He said that the state visits are “expressions of the profound friendship between our peoples and of our strategic partnership, reflected in the ongoing discussions that I have had from the first day of my presidency with Greek President Sakellaropoulou; Prime Minister Mitsotakis, whom I recently hosted for a friendly discussion during his visit in Israel; President Anastasiades of Cyprus, and their teams,” Herzog said.

The visits are both scheduled to be held before Herzog’s reported visit to Turkey – the historic and actual rival of both Greece and Cyprus, which is expected to take place during the second week of March.

The timing of Herzog’s visits to Greece and Cyprus is likely intentional, experts say.

“Herzog’s visit to Cyprus and Greece ahead of his visit to Turkey is symbolic and sends a message to both Nicosia and Athens, as well as Turkey, that the warming of bilateral relations in the second case, are not affecting the excellent relations in the first one -as well as the trilateral format of cooperation so far,” Yiannis Ioannou, co-founder of Geopolitical Cyprus and an analyst at Kathimerini – Cyprus Edition, told The Media Line.

However, Ioannou clarified, the visit does not carry more than a symbolic message. “He is the president, not the government,” he said.

There are some fields in which cooperation between Israel and Turkey could be beneficial for both countries, but this cannot come at the expense of the intimate and useful relations that Israel has with Greece and Cyprus

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, a former Deputy National Security Adviser of Israel, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, told The Media Line that he sees the visits as Israel’s way to strengthen its relations with its Mediterranean allies.

“Israel as a nation seeks to reassure its partners in the eastern Mediterranean alignment,” Lerman said.

He explained that this is actually a four-party alignment, since Egypt also is involved. Lerman described the countries’ relationship as an “alignment of powers where the four nations are working together for similar purposes, which is encouraged also by France in the west, and by the United Arab Emirates in the east. And all of them have an interest in stability in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Because of this, Lerman said, “Israel’s relations with Turkey are not going to be at the expense of its remarkable relations that have been built in the last few years” with Greece and Cyprus.

Ioannou agrees. “I do not think there is going to be any serious damage to Athens/Nicosia-Tel Aviv relations after a full restoration between Tel Aviv and Ankara,” he said. “These are different relations, extend to different areas – for Tel Aviv at least.”

Lerman pointed out that the visits could be designed to coordinate in advance anything that might happen during Herzog’s visit to Ankara.

“Over the last few years Israel has learned to be very cautious about Erdogan and his proposals,” Lerman said. “There are some fields in which cooperation between Israel and Turkey could be beneficial for both countries, but this cannot come at the expense of the intimate and useful relations that Israel has with Greece and Cyprus,” he added.

Gas has been a hot topic in the Mediterranean in recent years; it is likely that the current diplomatic developments are centered around this topic.

The East-Med pipeline, for example, was a proposed project signed on to in January 2020 by Israel, Greece and Cyprus, which consisted of a 1,900 km pipeline destined to be used to connect the gas reserves of the eastern Mediterranean to Greece, while leaving out Turkey.

As of late, this project has been presented as nonviable and it has lost its support from world powers including the Biden administration in Washington, which in January informed Jerusalem, Nicosia and Athens of its change of attitude toward the project.

“I think this is not a go anymore for several reasons,” Ioannou said of the East-Med project. “It was more like a political project by (Binyamin) Netanyahu’s government that Greece and Cyprus found attractive for a series of geopolitical reasons. It is nonviable and, for 2022, Israel decided to halt anything related to hydrocarbons for environmental reasons,” he also said.

“If Turkey and Israel become stronger partners in the future, I cannot exclude the option for the Leviathan partners to export gas through a pipeline in Turkey,” he added. Turkey “remains a huge market and Israel would not ask Athens or Nicosia for permission.”

Lerman is skeptical about the possibility of Israel committing to a pipeline through Turkey. At the same time, he explained, Israeli gas cannot travel through either Lebanon or Syria.

He said he believes that the US withdrawal of support for the East-Med project is more for “practical reasons,” not because of Turkey.

Israel’s relations with Turkey are not going to affect its relations with Greece and Cyprus, Lerman asserts

Erdogan “may hope to change it. But Israel is signaling at all levels that this will not happen,” he said.

 

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