Israel should maintain its Mediterranean alignment, despite signals from Ankara

It should be made clear to Israel’s partners in the Eastern Mediterranean that any (unlikely) improvement in Jerusalem’s relations with Turkey will not come at their expense.

Israeli naval forces and the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser “USS Monterey” conduct maritime security operations in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, March 15, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy.
Israeli naval forces and the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser “USS Monterey” conduct maritime security operations in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, March 15, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

There have been several signs over the past few weeks that the Turkish government is seeking a “reset” with Israel. The most notable was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conversation (July 12) with Israeli President Isaac Herzog after the latter took office. This effort comes against the background of U.S.-Turkish tensions and E.U. sanction threats over aspects of Turkish policy, but also of Erdoğan’s and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’s (TRNC) aggressive stance on the future of the island.

As the visits of the Greek and Cypriot foreign ministers indicate (on July 21 and 26, respectively), Israel’s partners in the Eastern Mediterranean feel the need for reassurance with regard to an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between them and Israel. In line with the positions taken during their meetings, it should indeed be made clear to all, including Egypt, that any (unlikely) improvement in relations with Turkey will not come at their expense.

Despite the signals, as an Islamist, Erdoğan’s basic orientation towards Israel is bound to remain hostile.

Why does Turkey profess to be interested in rapprochement with Israel? 

Erdoğan’s relatively long telephone conversation with Israel’s new president came within five days after the latter took office. The official readout of their discussion mentions the “potential for cooperation between the countries in many fields, in particular, the areas of energy, tourism and technology,” as well as the need to maintain a dialogue “despite the differences of opinion.” (Erdoğan’s version, as might have been expected, gave due place to the need for “a two-state lasting and comprehensible solution within the framework of U.N. resolutions.”) This was read in Israel and beyond as a bid to shed the bitter tensions of the past decade and open a channel of communication.

Indeed, this was not the only gesture of its kind by Turkey aimed at countries in the region with which Ankara almost came to blows in recent years. Senior envoys have gone to Egypt now that the situation in Libya has been stabilized to some degree. Both Ankara and Cairo know that they cannot get everything they want in Libya. Turkey’s allies in Tripoli cannot get rid of Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army, and even with Egypt’s support, the LNA under Haftar cannot conquer the country’s eastern half. A political process, fragile and complicated, is underway, and Turkey is obliged to seek some understandings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Turkey has also reached out to Saudi Arabia, after a long period of tension over the siege of Qatar and other points of contention.

The signaling to Israel is thus part of a broader pattern. At its root lies a growing sense of diplomatic isolation and vulnerability, given Turkey’s reduced standing in Washington (as demonstrated by President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide); and on the other hand, the hope of driving a wedge between the members of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) alignment.

Moreover, this coincides with the decision to escalate pressure on the Cypriots to accept facts on the ground in the TRNC controlled areas, and specifically, the reopening of the ghost city of Varosha, near Famagusta, to habitation by Cypriot (or Anatolian) Turks.

In this light, the courtship of Israel needs to be seen as a bid to sow dissent among key members of the strategic alignment embodied by the EMGF. Ankara looks upon this regional organization, and its underlying logic of strategic cooperation on a broad range of issues, as a deliberate effort to contain Turkish aspirations for hegemony in the region. Distancing Israel, as well as Egypt (and Egypt’s Arab backers) from Greece and Cyprus could make it easier for Erdoğan to pursue his neo-Ottoman ambitions, rewrite the rules in Cyprus, and down the road (even if tensions in the Aegean have abated somewhat) implement the concept of the “blue homeland” (mavi vatan).

This concept assumes an extended realm of maritime control which ignores the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rights of Greece; Turkey’s map negates the EEZ delineation generated by the existence of Rhodes, Karpathos and Crete. Clearly, one of the drivers of Erdoğan’s move in Cyprus is the incessant need for action which stems from the growing discontent and signs of domestic weakness of his ruling party, AKP (and the reliance on the ultra-nationalist MHP).

Signs of worry in Athens and Nicosia? 

Not surprisingly, a note of alarm began to enter the Greek and Cypriot discourse with Israel. Both countries understand that the “alignment” is not (yet?) an alliance, and that Israel is not and will not be committed to join a military confrontation with Turkey if one erupts. Still, the reality and the perception of close coordination with Israel on a range of issues contribute to the resilience of both Greece and Cyprus in the face of an aggressive challenge. Hence the concern about a possible change of Israeli attitudes towards Turkey.

With notable alacrity, both Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (July 21) and his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides (July 26) visited Israel within a fortnight of Erdoğan’s call. While there is a wide range of issues on the bilateral as well as the trilateral agenda, it was manifest that the recent aggressive stance taken by Turkey in Cyprus was at the forefront of their concerns. They came to be reassured about Israel’s stance. Significantly, President Herzog also called his Greek counterpart, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, to inform her of the content of his conversation with Erdoğan, and met with Christodoulides during his visit, apparently with the same purpose in mind.

Israel’s priority: Shoring up the Mediterranean alignment

During both visits, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid went out of his way to show fraternity and warmth (also seeking, more broadly, to repair Israel’s relations with Europe). During his meeting with Christodoulides, he publicly criticized Turkish actions in Varosha and expressed Israeli solidarity with Cyprus.

These sentiments, as already indicated, need not be interpreted as a strategic commitment. The ability of Cyprus to counter these actions, beyond bringing the matter to the attention of the international community, is quite limited to begin with. Israel’s stance does, however, send a clear signal that needs to be sustained. The alignment, as developed in recent years, is important to Israel in many respects (including some which pertain to our national security in future emergencies, and to Israel’s diplomatic standing in Europe). It will not be traded away for a short-lived rapprochement with a leader in Turkey whose Islamist orientation remains fundamentally hostile.

There is also the significant aspect of Israel’s improving relationship with France. (That relationship has been shaken, but not undermined, by the “Pegasus”/NSO scandal, which was the immediate reason for the urgent visit of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Paris). Now a member of the EMGF, France shares with Israel a perspective on Turkish ambitions, and like Israel and Egypt does not grieve over the removal of elements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Tunisia.

Even more important are the relationships with Jordan (a member of good standing of the EMGF, although it has no Mediterranean shore of its own) and Egypt. Stabilizing Jordan is vital to peace and stability for the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole. The king of Jordan’s trilateral summit in Athens with the leaders of Greece and Cyprus (July 28) was an important step towards the consolidation of the alignment.

As for el-Sisi, who at present also plays a key role in seeking to calm tensions with Hamas in Gaza, the importance of his role can hardly be overstated. While he may be willing to engage with Erdoğan over practical matters, such as the Libyan situation, the basic ideological chasm between his regime and the Islamist orientation of the AKP is not likely to be bridged.

For Israel, the obvious message to send is that with very few exceptions—and Erdoğan’s Turkey is not one of them—the strategic commonality with Egypt is at the very top of our long-term interests and must remain so. Alongside Israel’s partners in the United Arab Emirates, and through the utilization of the growing cooperation between Greek and Jewish diasporic organizations in the United States (and elsewhere), active efforts should be made to uphold the international legitimacy of the Greek-Egyptian EEZ map, and to ensure that U.S. policy on Libya will push back against Turkey’s bid for hegemony.

IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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