Israel’s recent rapprochement with Turkey need not preclude Jerusalem taking a firm stand on Ankara’s claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, Israel must again reject the Memorandum of Understanding signed in October between Turkey and the Government of National Accord in Libya regarding oil and gas exploration.
Moreover, Ankara’s baseless claims to Greek islands in the Aegean, whose sovereignty is undisputable, should worry all partners in the regional alignment. Israel should also turn U.S. attention (the European Union has already reacted) to the need to help resolve these issues amicably, on the accepted basis of the Law of the Sea.
Turkey’s AKP government has been actively involved in the Libyan civil war since 2014, supporting elements in Tripolitania, in the west of the country, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, against the forces based in Cyrenaica led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (backed by Egypt). In November 2019, when the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) was besieged in Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), this intervention became more pronounced, and the GNA signed two MoUs with Ankara:
1. Arrangement for significant Turkish involvement in the war, specifically in the use of drones and enhancing air defense.
2. An agreement to delineate the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Eastern Mediterranean, presumably such that the two countries share a common border. That would mean any pipeline or power cable laid across the eastern Mediterranean—connecting Israel, Egypt and Cyprus to Greece and Europe—would depend on Turkish goodwill.
The suggested delineation assumes—by necessity—that key Greek islands, such as Rhodes, Karpathos and Crete, do not have an EEZ to the east of them, contrary to what the Law of the Sea suggests. On the other hand, Greece and Egypt concluded their ongoing negotiations and drew a line delimiting their EEZs based on the actual geography of the islands and the Law of the Sea.
The agreement was signed in Cairo by foreign ministers Sameh Shoukri and Nikos Dendias on Aug. 6, 2020. Within a day, the UAE lent support to the Greek-Egyptian map; within a week, so did Israel (and shortly afterward came the announcement of the impending signing of the Abraham Accords). Thus, the delineation of the Libyan and Turkish EEZ was and remains essential not only for Israel and Egypt but also for others in the region who seek to curtail Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions and shore up economic and political stability in Egypt.
A period of stabilization – and a renewed crisis
The Turkish intervention in Libya did achieve dramatic results: the breaking of the siege of Tripoli, the taking of critical bases in the country’s west from the LNA and the retreat of Haftar’s forces. At some point, it seemed like the GNA would pursue them to Benghazi and beyond. However, Egypt intervened as well, countering the Turkish-backed offensive with the threat that any advance eastward beyond the Sirt-Jafra line in central Libya would trigger a full-scale Egyptian military invasion.
The result was a tenuous draw and a prolonged period during which the international community—the United Nations, United States, Germany and other European powers, who were not always in harmony with each other—worked to bring about reconciliation, unification and the creation of new and legitimate national institutes. Nevertheless, while the violence level decreased significantly, fundamental realities in Libya did not change.
What did change was the strategy chosen by Erdogan. For various reasons, but most certainly because of Turkey’s financial meltdown, he embarked on a courtship of the vital Arab players: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Egypt (despite the bad blood between him and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi). In parallel—indeed, in today’s regional realities, as a complementary aspect—Erdogan also chose to initiate a rapprochement with Israel, which remains a large and profitable trade partner and may also help him change Turkey’s image in Washington.
With all this at stake, and with the partial stabilization in Libya, the EEZ delineation issue was relegated to the back burner. But the dramatic rise in energy prices, and the sharpening tone of Turkey’s claims against Greece on a range of other issues, has led Ankara to revive the 2019 contention and enshrine it in a new Memorandum of Understanding controlling the gas and oil exploration and exploitation rights in the purported Libyan EEZ.
Egypt reacted sharply, suspending its strategic dialogue with Turkey and sliding back toward the language of the previous decade. So did Greece, backed by a firm statement issued by the European Union. The United States has yet to take a firm stand, and Israel, which did stand strong in 2019, has yet to react. At stake are not only the Eastern Mediterranean borders but the Turkish strategy of pressuring Greece by raising claims over several major Greek islands in the Aegean, including Mytilene, Samos and Chios.
Turkey has been claiming for years that since Greece has “militarized” these islands, it has forfeited its right to sovereignty. This campaign intensified in letters sent by Turkey to the UN secretary-general in July and September 2021, and those claims were rebutted, in letters sent by Greece to the Security Council, based on the treaties of Lausanne (1923) and Paris (1947).
What can Israel do?
The visit to Israel earlier this month of President Nikos Anastasiades of Cyprus—during which time he was decorated with the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor and met with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu—was a timely reminder of the importance for Israel of the “Hellenic connection.” Alongside the vital relationship with Egypt, it now constitutes a strategic alignment in the eastern Mediterranean.
Regarding Israel’s direct national interest, the EEZ delineation suggested by Turkey and the GNA is a threat to any plan to lay an energy connector—pipeline or power cable—from Israel, Cyprus or Egypt to Europe. While no such plans yet exist, the potential presents Israel as a legitimate energy player in the Eastern Mediterranean, one that draws in corporations such as Chevron, which not long ago would have never been seen anywhere near Israel.
Despite the will to pursue reconciliation with Turkey—and the emerging common interest in the face of Iranian adventurism, specifically vis-à-vis Azerbaijan—it remains very much in Israel’s interest to clarify its position on Turkey’s claims in no uncertain terms. Jerusalem also has a vested interest in the stability and economic viability of Egypt—and of Cyprus and Greece. Pointedly, Isdraeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz mentioned the alliance with Cyprus and Greece during his visit to Ankara, deliberately disabusing his host of any hope of driving a wedge among the partners in the East Med alignment.
At the same time, as Gantz hinted in his statement, Israel is ready to be of assistance (and should urge the United States to do the same) to help both sides—Turkey on the one hand, and Greece and Egypt on the other—come to the negotiating table, as long as the terms of reference are anchored in the basic tenets of the Law of the Sea. In a letter to the U.N. secretary-general in May, Greece made it clear that it “continues to firmly believe that the two countries can resolve their outstanding differences, namely the delimitation of their continental shelves and exclusive economic zones, in a spirit of good-neighborly relations and in accordance with international law.”
The Greek position in the 2020 agreement with Egypt demonstrated flexibility (much like Israel’s position in the talks with the United States over the boundaries with Lebanon). Such an outcome, if possible—though probably not until after the Turkish election next year—would also be very much in Israel’s interest.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.