What is the US agenda for the Eastern Mediterranean?

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have formed an alignment and the United States must realize its importance.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference in Jerusalem with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades (left) and Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis as part of their eighth trilateral meeting, Dec. 7, 2021. Photo by Rafi Kutz/POOL.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference in Jerusalem with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades (left) and Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis as part of their eighth trilateral meeting, Dec. 7, 2021. Photo by Rafi Kutz/POOL.
Efraim Inbar

In recent years, Cyprus, Greece and Israel have significantly intensified their political, energy and military relations.

The political leaders of the three countries meet regularly. They coordinate their energy policies, particularly on the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, they founded the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), including Egypt, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. This became a regional cooperation platform for developing natural gas fields in the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the three states conduct various military exercises that hone their capabilities. Additional interactions in other areas cement this alignment, which is of political and strategic consequence. For example, it contributed to Turkey’s policy change towards the Abraham Accords and Israel.

A more coherent common foreign policy agenda is needed to enhance the strategic significance of the Athens-Jerusalem-Nicosia partnership. The first item on the agenda is better coordination in Washington to sensitize the United States to regional realities, because the U.S. does not seem to have a coherent policy on this region.

Washington is obsessed with human rights in its approach to Egypt, the most important Arab state. In Libya, it tilts toward Islamist elements. The apex of strategic shortsightedness was the cancellation of U.S. support for the EastMed pipeline (for supposed environmental reasons) that was planned to begin providing energy to Europe a few weeks before the Russia-Ukraine war, precipitating an energy crisis.

The Biden administration needs to focus its approach to the region. As the U.S. turns its attention to China for understandable reasons, the eastern Mediterranean region will get even less American attention. However, rising energy prices might slow the American departure from the larger Middle East.

This period should be capitalized on to secure a better American understanding of the value of Cyprus, Greece and Israel’s trilateral alignment. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Israel is an opportunity to enhance this understanding.

Alignment with Egypt, not Turkey

The second item on the common agenda regards Egypt, a member of the EMGF and a historical rival of Turkey. Greece and Cyprus have already promoted military relations with Egypt in the face of security threats and in order to defend their interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

Yet Egypt is reluctant to join the Hellenic alignment with Israel, despite the significant improvement in Cairo-Jerusalem relations. Efforts toward integrating Egypt into the configuration are needed, because Egyptian participation could be highly beneficial to all parties.

The third issue is Turkey, a revisionist power animated by neo-Ottoman and Islamist impulses. It has moderated its behavior for various reasons, but as long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan is its leader, the potential for mischief is great.

Yet the U.S. exit from the region and a weakened Russia confer greater freedom of action to Turkey (and other regional powers). The Russia-Ukraine war underscored the strategic importance of Turkey’s location. Moreover, the U.S. will hesitate to pressure Ankara in order to avoid pushing it into Russian hands. These developments could encourage Turkish adventurism. Containing Turkey will continue to be a significant challenge.

A fourth issue relates to the new West Asia Quad grouping of the United States, India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). New Delhi is attempting to build an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative by linking India to the Mediterranean via the UAE and Israel.

Such an endeavor will endear its participants to Washington. Israel, the UAE and the Hellenic nations should promote this alternative. Furthermore, establishing this Quad will strengthen the Abraham Accords, which are young and fragile. The people of the Gulf have not yet internalized the inherent advantages of recognizing the Jewish state. Moreover, the Abraham Accords are contingent upon Israel making good on the expectation that it will end the Iranian threat.

Ukraine reminded us that war is still a policy option even in Europe, and the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East are more bellicose regions than Europe.

Alas, international law and guarantees have proved ineffective in preventing predatory states from aggression. This is no surprise to those who understand the essentially chaotic nature of the international system, where there is no international policeman to maintain law and order.

This means that states belonging to the Athens-Jerusalem-Nicosia alignment must prepare for war without illusions. While intra-alignment relations should be strengthened, it is worth remembering that this is not an alliance. Israel should be the model and its self-reliance doctrine must be emulated. Each state should invest in defense and enhance military capabilities and deterrence. Weakness always invites aggression.

Implementing this agenda is a national security imperative for the alignment, and the U.S. should actively promote it. Moreover, the U.S. could provide a modicum of stability in a bad neighborhood. Athens and Jerusalem, the founders of Western civilization, should show the way for the rest of the world.

Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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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