NICOSIA, Cyprus – “This would have been unimaginable several years ago,” was a statement heard often throughout Wednesday’s conference. Israeli-Hellenic Forum meetings in Nicosia. The forum brought together ambassadors, diplomats, exporters and officials from Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
These three countries are quickly becoming close partners and allies. Many participants highlighted in their presentations how quickly the region has changed in recent years and decades. This means that Israel, Cyprus and Greece are now much closer than in the past, while Israel also has new partners in the Gulf. Cyprus and Greece share a common language and history, but Israel and Greece in particular have not always had such warm relations as they do today.
Speakers drew attention to broader integration that brings stability to a region that stretches from Europe across the Eastern Mediterranean to Israel, Egypt and Jordan, then to the Gulf and to India. There are, however, some challenges. Even as Israel and Turkey improve relations, Ankara still appears hostile to Cyprus. Additionally, it remains unclear whether relations between Greece and Turkey will improve. Furthermore, Greece and Cyprus may not share Israel’s views on Iran. However, on important issues, these countries care about the US-led world order that emerged after the Cold War; they are democracies close to Europe and the West.
The Israeli-Hellenic Forum was established by the B’nai B’rith Global Center, with its first session in 2019. I attended the first sessions and closely followed the growth of ties between Israel, Cyprus and the Greece over the last decade. This took place in the pleasant grounds of the University of Nicosia, organized with the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs of the University and the Institute of International Relations (IDIS) of the Panteion University of ‘Athens.
While participants tried not to talk about adversaries, but rather about their common values and interests, the “elephant” of Turkish politics loomed in the room. Several years ago, Turkey was increasingly aggressive towards Greece and Cyprus, and threatening towards Israel. Turkey has also sent forces to Libya and attempted to create tensions over economic zones off Cyprus and Greece.
This worries Israel, which takes the security of its offshore EEZ seriously. Additionally, Israel also has new Sa’ar 6 vessels to guard its waters, working with Egypt and Cyprus on energy policies, as well as Jordan, the Palestinians and Greece. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought this issue into sharper focus.
For many small and medium-sized countries in the world – such as Israel, Greece and Cyprus – the question of rules-based international order, for example countries that do not invade each other, is very important. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led many countries to rethink their defense policies. In addition, Turkey’s invasion of Syria and other actions also raise concerns. For example, Ankara prevents Sweden from joining NATO, which means that Greece, Israel and Cyprus prefer an international order anchored in the West, where they do not face the instability caused by the actions of Turkey, Russia or Iran.
However, countries are also questioning whether US policy will remain firm and committed. While the United States plays an important role in the Eastern Mediterranean and can work in settings such as joint military exercises, countries now know they must increase their military purchases and work together on regional issues.
To this end, Marilena Raouna, Director of the Diplomatic Office of the President of the Republic of Cyprus, spoke about trilateral partnerships and strategic ties. Dr. Elai Rettig, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, discussed possibilities for regional energy cooperation that could connect the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf. National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi reiterated the importance of strengthening regional peace and stability.
The meeting included important remarks from Lt.-Gen. Dimokritos Zervakis, Chief of the National Guard of the Republic of Cyprus, discussed defense policy and the importance of bilateral exercises with Israel and other countries. Thanos Dokos, National Security Advisor to the Greek Prime Minister, spoke of the importance of building on current ties between Greece, Cyprus and Israel to create stronger relations between the three countries and extend them to other States that already share close partnerships with all three.
Questions remain about what comes next. Although many positive winds are blowing, uncertainty remains over whether Ankara’s policy will move towards dialogue; Will Turkey welcome the new regional diplomatic era, as evidenced by the way Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have welcomed Syria’s return, as well as the talks in Astana this week between Turkey, Iran and Russia?
On the other hand, other questions remain about how to develop existing ties between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Will countries’ energy dreams be met by pipelines, power grids, LNG or other initiatives, or will they stagnate? Will joint military exercises turn into regional exercises, linked to a greater US role, or will the US begin to focus less on the Eastern Mediterranean?
Other questions remain, such as climate change and the role of artificial intelligence. What the forum showed is that a unique partnership has been created, but it needs to be strengthened and taken to the next stage.