The regional cooperation of Greece – Cyprus – Israel and the ballot of Israeli elections on 17 September is presenting for readers a series of observations by noted researcher Gabriel Haritos broadly entitled “The Israeli Parliamentary Elections of September 17, 2019, and the Greek Regional Factor.” These studies will be featured, over the days leading up to the election.

Gabriel Haritos, Ph.D., Researcher, The Ben Gurion Reserach Institute, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs.

The regional cooperation of Greece – Cyprus – Israel and the ballot of Israeli elections on 17 September

As with the other foreign policy issues managed by Netanyahu’s administration, in the current election campaign issues related to Israel’s position on the energy map of the Eastern Mediterranean received almost no opposition from the opposition. Throughout the previous term of office, no political force in Israel has criticized government decisions that promoted the strengthening of relations with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the US and the EU on the exploitation of gas. Indeed, compared to the previous election period for the elections of 9 April 2019, there is now a complete absence of criticism from the opposition about Netanyahu and his circle’s’s particular relationship with his environment with specific business interests involved in Israeli natural gas exploitation.

With the US also actively involved, especially after the presence of the US Ambassador to Israel at the proceedings of the Beer Sheva Trilateral Conference in December 2018, and subsequently with the participation of the US Secretary of State in the next Tripartite, held in Jerusalem on June 2019, any “second thoughts” Israeli experts had on the importance and viability of the Israel-Cyprus-Greece axis in the field of energy and their regional and military cooperation policy in general have come to an end. One should note that in the Israeli political environment there is no party organization expressing a priori anti-American positions – with the exception of minority Arab parties, due to the traditionally pro-Israel attitude of the United States on the Palestinian issue.

A game of three possibilities

On the course of Israel’s cooperation with the Greek regional factor, the possibilities that emerge after the September 17, 2019, elections are as follows:

  • If Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in forming a government with Likud as its core body in Likud, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus will continue to cooperate regionally in the familiar framework of cooperation, drawing on the experience of the last ten years.
  • If Avigdor Lieberman co-exists in a coalition government, either under Benjamin Netanyahu or under Benny Gantz, Athens and Nicosia would find themselves talking again to the long-time Foreign Minister who had already begun laying the groundwork for this tripartite regional axis. before the Mavi Marmara incident broke out at the end of May 2010 and for a significant period of time following. Mr Lieberman’s presence in a coalition government, whatever his duties, is seen as a positive one for Greek and Greek Cypriot aspirations, especially in view of Israel’s continued stance towards Turkey.
  • Finally, should Benny Gantz be called upon to rule, excluding Benjamin Netanyahu, or even for whatever reason – largely unpredictable in the post-election negotiations – Avigdor Lieberman, then the Greek regional factor will be called upon to reafirm all that has been agreed upon so far at the tripartite level, activating the safeguards provided by the US, Egypt, the EU and the business circles that are expecting much from the Israel-Greece-Cyprus axis. Gantz, beyond his recent political status, basically hails from Israel’s military establishment, which adopted – ever since the distant 1950s to the 2010 Mavi Marmara episode – the belief that the Turkey-Israel axis is irreplaceable. The Greek regional factor is called upon to maintain the level of strategic co-operation with Israel, but taking seriously into consideration earlier views of Israeli political and military leadership, which have not necessarily been forgotten.

What if the Netanyahu era ends?

In addition to the above, and regardless of the composition of the new coalition government in Israel, some additional information should not be ignored. Specifically :

In recent years, the Greek regional factor seems to rely on the fact that on one hand Israeli foreign policy is personally managed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and on the other, that the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey will last for many more years. It is not clear, however, whether or not Benjamin Netanyahu will have a significant role in shaping his country’s foreign policy, or whether the balance between Ankara and Jerusalem will, gradually or not, change drastically. Should at least one of these occur, Athens and Nicosia will be asked to fill in the gaps in order to find ways to overcome any shocks on the tripartite axis they have cultivated with Israeli political leadership. In order to find the necessary alternatives more easily, the Greek regional actor must develop as soon as possible a variety of channels of communication with Israeli political reality and the peculiar – and largely unknown in Greece and Cyprus – political culture that governs it.

The Israeli political system is characterized by ideological pluralism, manifested by the existence of a multitude of party formations, many of them moving in a cultural environment very different from the western-style parliamentary democracies of Greece and Cyprus. Athens and Nicosia are called upon to understand the practical influence of Israeli party pluralism on decision-making centers, realizing that even a small political party, which happens to have garnered only 3.25% of valid ballots and occupy just 4 seats in the 120-member assembly, at some point may likely have the political power to drastically determine a given – perhaps important – decision of the Ministry that it may control or even the entire government. Therefore, it is necessary for the Greek regional actor to be able to cultivate multiple channels of communication with the Israeli party spectrum, regardless of ideological position, or religious, ethnic, or national orientation.

The need to create alternative communication channels

In order to develop alternative channels of communication with multiple party partners in the Israeli coalition government, moves by the Greek or Cypriot government agencies alone are not sufficient. Party structures operating in Greece and the Republic of Cyprus should be properly exploited for the following reasons:

A) Israeli political parties, because of the current electoral system, are characterized by the overwhelming specialization of their political aspirations (ideological, religious, cultural, etc.) because they seek to control a particular ministry when faced with any electoral contest. eg ultra-Orthodox religious parties seek to control the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Education).

B) No Israeli political party has a specific and clearly defined agenda for managing its foreign policy; except of course on issues that are clearly related to the negotiation with the Palestinian side. This phenomenon, especially during Netanyahu’s long tenure, has an explanation. It is well known that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the planning of the country’s international relations are personally managed by Benjamin Netanyahu. It is a fact that no other political figure in the country in recent years has the required profile to manage the complexity of Israel’s bilateral and multilateral relations with foreign countries. So whenever there is a question of forming a new coalition government, the Foreign Ministry will be taken over either by Benjamin Netanyahu himself or persons who are completely controlled by him. However, it remains unclear what the successor situation will be if the longest serving Israeli Prime Minister ceases to be in power. The question remains unanswerable, since no political party has in its agenda the important chapter called ‘international relations’ – beyond the central thorny issue of the conflict with the Palestinians. The existence of such a gap and the question of how it should be addressed are two issues that must be of concern to the Greek regional actor.

For an inter-party dialogue between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel

In Greece, because of the tradition of one-party governments – the result of a series of electoral systems governed by the principle of enhanced proportionality – the need for practical inter-party conventions in managing the country’s international relations has not been as entrenched as it should.

On the contrary, in Cyprus, and especially after the Turkish invasion and the overthrow of President Makarios’ rule, the Greek Cypriot political parties have over the years instituted inter-party consensus procedures to meet the challenges posed by the international relations of Cyprus, with the main reason being the continued Turkish occupation. As a result, since the late 1970s to the present day, important decisions concerning the international relations of the Republic of Cyprus have been the subject of inter-party consultation for the widest possible ideological consensus, with generally satisfactory results. In particular, the inter-party consensus on the necessity of the Cyprus-Israel approach, beginning with President Dimitris Christofias and followed thereafter, has been impressive.

In view of the above, and given the pluralism of the Israeli party environment on the one hand and the Cyprus experience in the inter-party management of the country’s international relations, on the other, it would be appropriate and feasible to expand the communication channels between the Cyprus party environment and the Israeli party millieu, in order to develop useful and practical safeguards, which will serve as mechanisms to prevent any changes in current favorable bilateral co-operation situations. For this reason, it is appropriate to identify the appropriate common points of reference between Israeli and Cypriot parties on an ideological level, as well as between local sources of public discourses that are active in the fields of religion, entrepreneurship and trade unionism, in these two countries.

It is clear that, due to the peculiar nature of the political system of Cyprus and Israel, absolute ideological identities at the level of parties or public discourse cannot be found. Cyprus and Israel move along different cultural paths, and this is illustrated by the content and physiognomy of the agenda of their political parties. But common denominators can be found in well-established democratic institutions, pluralism in public discourse, and the tried-and-true practice of inter-party consultation – and sometimes, broad consensus.

Despite the inherent difficulties in finding common ground between the political parties of the two countries, the historical background of Israeli-Cypriot relations, dating back to the time before the declaration of independence of Cyprus and extending to the present day, has much to teach and can effectively control decision-making centers in both Cyprus and Israel.