Towards a new revision of the balance in the Eastern Mediterranean

by Gabriel Haritos*

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important holiday of Judaism. However, since the war that began on that day in October 1973 – and claimed many lives because of the surprise that the IDF suffered at first – Yom Kippur celebrations in Israel every year are accompanied by unpleasant memories.

So the message that local media and the state machine itself stress every year on this day is that, regardless of holidays, off days, and celebrations preparedness for a possible sudden attack from the East should always be at its highest level. Amid this mixed climate of religious devotion, holiday and phobic syndrome that is ingrained in Israeli public opinion during Yom Kippur every year, the Trump administration’s decision to politely cede US position to the Turkish military in northeastern Syria seemed to have caught domestic media and Israeli officials by surprise.

In addition to comments of sympathy for the Kurds, whose struggle for self-determination has been seen in Israel over the last decade as similar to what the Jewish armed groups had undertaken against the British in Palestine, the Israeli concerns focused on the following assessment: The decision of the US to effectively give the “green light” to Turkey to undertake control of northeastern Syria (and thereby further enhance the already important role that this country plays in the Syrian civil conflict), is actually the harbinger of a more comprehensive American scale-back in the Middle East.

The idea of a more introverted/isolationist attitude of American policy in the region is becoming increasingly more prevalent. Already since the era of Barack Obama, this assessment has been insistently been repeated by many think tanks. After all, the perceived American isolationism was also the essence of the heated controversy between the US and Israel at the time, with Benjamin Netanyahu being described as a rather “annoying visitor” to the White House. The generous American military aid given to the Israeli armed forces by the Obama administration should mislead no one. In fact, it was a “last coming-of-age” gift of adulthood towards the Israeli side, which would undertake its own defense against the many dangers from the East and the North.
With Donald Trump’s victory at the polls and his many pro-Israeli declarations, which were also accompanied by deeds – in particular, the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights – Israeli fears that Washington would back out were humored. Another important guarantee for the US staying in the region was, of course, the presence of US troops in Syria (which had never happened before), with the Kurdish factor enjoying unprecedented support, which could lead to, not only a status, of autonomy, but also to independence.

However, even if behind closed doors both Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials had been informed nine months ago that the US presence in Syria had already begun to countdown towards an exit, successive Israeli elections and a protracted lack of a government in Israel forced local decision centers to expect the inevitable. On the other hand, and throughout the last period, the Israeli military machine systematically took care of deactivating Iranian military installations in Syria and Iraq. It also made sure that Hezbollah was properly occupied in southern Lebanon in order to reduce the headache as much as possible when the American presence gradually began to diminish.

It has been subsequently proven that Netanyahu’s recent statements on the need to adopt a new, revised framework for defense cooperation with the United States, as well as promoting the signing of a military cooperation pact with the United Arab Emirates, were not just another a communication ploy, simply to promote the formation of a new coalition government with its main political rival, retired general Benny Gantz. No one, in fact, can rule out that Benny Gantz and his other party partners, the equally astute military veterans, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi , were not equally aware of Washington’s decisions. That would be the only way to explain Benny Gantz’s truly unusual, moderate conciliatory attitude during his post-election meetings with Netanyahu. This could also explain the unusual insistence of the President of the State, Reuven Rivlin, to promote – extremely early – in practice the idea of forming a unity government as quickly as possible. And while initially it seemed that the catalyst for resolving inter-party differences in Israel would be the long-awaited “Deal of the Century” that the Trump Middle East peace plan brought with it, it ultimately seems that the images transmitted across the Syria-Turkey border with US troops pulling out are the ones most likely to speed up post-election developments and end the longest period of non-governance Israel has ever seen in its parliamentary history.

So, the day after the announcement of the US withdrawal from northern Syria – which coincided with the eve of this year’s Yom Kippur – Israeli newspapers, in addition to the bitter memories of the country ‘s surprise in the 1973 War, were enriched by gloomy scenarios of the likelihood of repetition of those unpleasant moments. Characteristic of the climate was an extensive analysis by experienced Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Ishay (among whose first journalistic missions was to cover the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974), who listed Iran’s military capabilities, expressing clearly his doubt as to whether Israel would be able to handle a multitude of Iranian unmanned aircraft swarming in Israeli airspace, with no “American safety net” present any longer in the wider region, any longer. Statements leaked to state radio by senior government and military officials that the announcement of the Americans’ departure from Syria was directly linked to the US desire to unblock the “Iranian problem” as soon as possible, were characteristic. Proof of American moderation – now characterized as apathy – was the lack of even just a vociferous statement from the White House not only about the airstrike suffered by two Saudi Arabian oil facilities by an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle but also on the downing of an American drone by Iranian fire in the Persian Gulf region. The same Israeli high-ranking sources have opined that the US scale back is due to the upcoming US presidential election next year, and that President Trump has to show his voters how consistent he is in following his ” America First” slogan and, at the same time, to entertain the (purely communicative for the time being) efforts of the Democrats to impeach him.

In simpler terms, the announcement of the US withdrawal from northern Syria has shifted Israeli interest in what lies ahead if the American regrouping trend goes further, thus leaving the defence of Israel “naked” vis-a-vis the permanent Iranian threat. On the other hand – and although this has not yet been clearly stated – Israel will not be late in seeking alternatives to fill possible gaps in its efforts to deter the permanent Iranian threat from the East. One can assess that the time will come for senior officials to re-examine the course of the country’s relations with Turkey, whose role is clearly being upgraded as regards to developments in Syria. In such a case, one, at this time, cannot exclude that there will be no impact on the quality of the relations Israel has cultivated with its neighboring countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, in recent years.

The well-known quotation that “History repeats itself” could lead to fatalistic findings. But one thing that cannot be ignored is the geographical realities that make Israel objectively vulnerable to the constant danger from the East – which, in 2019, is Iran. In addition, what is worth noting in reference to the recent historical past is that whenever Israel felt its security was at stake, it could easily find a way to adjust its regional policy accordingly.
The distant 1958 is a great example that should not be overlooked. Back then, Nasser’s Egypt – Israel’s strongest military opponent at the time – formed with Syria the United Arab Republic. This had changed the balance in the region, with Israel seeing its northern border controlled by Cairo overnight. In the summer of the same year, the Nasser regime launched a very ambitious plan: To take control of Jordan and Lebanon, instigating military coups in Amman and Beirut. Had the pro-Nasser movements succeeded, Israel would have been essentially surrounded by regimes backed by Nasser’s Egypt, and it would only be a matter of time for a synchronized Arab offensive to have a great chance of success. In the summer of 1958, Britain and the United States intervened militarily – in Jordan and Lebanon respectively – and essentially not only kept the pro-Western regimes of those countries in power and at the same time demonstrated to the Israeli leadership the need to immediately find new alternatives to security, on a regional level.

At that time, Israeli-Turkish bilateral relations were going through a long period of diplomatic crisis. Turkey, with the encouragement of the US, had already taken on the role of a pro-Western mediator, who was called upon to “make them come to their senses” in a way that would allow the Arab world to accept Israel’s existence in the region. However, Ankara had first of all to ensure the general confidence of the Arabs, demonstrating that it respects basic ideological standards. Turkish anti-Israeli barbs had been pronounced as early as mid-1955, culminating in statements by the President of the Turkish Republic, Celâl Bayar, when during his official visit to Jordan in November 1955 he declared that “the Turkish army was ready to join the Jordanian Army in battle, to jointly repel any enemy,” implying Israel. Thus, when the Suez Crisis broke out in October 1956 (during which Israel, Britain, and France invaded Nasser’s Egypt, an operation immediately condemned by the USSR and the USA), the climate in Turkey and the Arab world had ripened to the point that Ankara decided to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv, as a sign of strong disaffection with Israel, while also demonstrating solidarity with the Arabs.

During that turbulent summer of 1958, Israel was immediately called upon to find alternative regional alliances. As common sense showed, Turkey fulfilled the geostrategic requirements necessary to serve as the most effective “security buttress” for vulnerable Israel. Thus, in August 1958, the historic meeting of the Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Adnan Menderes took place in Ankara under utmost secrecy, which capped multiple behind-the-scenes contacts between diplomats of both countries that had preceded a few months before in Rome and Switzerland. The Israeli-Turkish rapprochement in August 1958, though it did not lead to the full normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations (Turkey – like Greece – fully restored its diplomatic relations with Israel after the Madrid peace conference in the early 1990s) laid the groundwork for an informal but actual alliance axis that remained active and effective until the bloody episode of Mavi Marmara at the end of May 2010.
Although the exact content of the so-called “secret alliance agreement” between Ben-Gurion and Menderes is still unknown, the sequence of these events is well known and verified not only by the available archive material but also by a mere reading of the news in the following decades.

However, there is one major event that has recently come to light, following archival research conducted by the present author at the Israeli State Archive from 2012-2014, and described in detail in the monograph “Cyprus, the Neighboring Isle – The Cyprus Question in Israel’s State Archives, 1946-1960 (in Greek)»(Papazisis editions, 2018). According to Israeli archival material, declassified in 2013 by the State Archives of Israel, Turkey requested diplomatic solidarity at the UN level in response to Israel’s request for various measures by Ankara to safeguard its territorial integrity. In particular, at the forthcoming UN General Assembly in late 1958, the Cyprus issue was scheduled to be discussed once again. While it was assumed that Turkish moves would be supported by the major Western countries, Turkey was at the time unable to influence the traditional anti-colonialist countries of Latin America. In addition to the ideological differences that separated Turkey from those countries, Turkish diplomacy was typically absent from Latin American capitals. On the contrary, the diplomatic and political influence exercised by Greece at that time was much more significant and substantial. At the same time, however, Israel had developed a vast network of contacts in Latin America, capable of causing the break up of the so-called “Latin American voting group” , traditionally expressing a genuine anti-colonialist agenda, and strongly supporting the demands of Greece and Greek Cypriots in both the UN and other international fora.

Israel, under the pressure of regional circumstances, and having already experienced the effects of international diplomatic isolation after the Suez Crisis in 1956 – but also the coldness circumstantially shown by Washington, agreed to facilitate Turkish aspirations, and on Ankara’s recommendation, it agreed to carry out behind-the-scenes diplomatic actions to influence the Latin American states, indirectly but clearly, promoting Turkish arguments on the Cyprus issue at the time. the focus of international concern. It is clear, in hindsight, that the Israeli actions in and of themselves were not entirely responsible for the unpleasant (for the Greek side) result of the crucial UN General Assembly vote in 1958 – which was essentially the forerunner of the Zurich-London Accords. However, Israel had managed to break the until then solid pro-Greek (Philhellenic) Latin American block, surprising Greek diplomacy unpleasantly.

After this brief historical overview, it is not difficult to highlight some similarities to what could happen today.
On the one hand, Israel realizes that if Donald Trump’s administration persists in its intention to withdraw the US military presence from Syria, it will be extremely difficult to convince it to do otherwise. Israel is realizing how vulnerable its security will be to Iran, at a time when everything is showing that the Islamic republic will continue to maintain its presence in Syria. At the same time, Israel is well aware that a military understanding with Russia on intra-Syrian balances is circumstantial. Indeed, at a time when Tehran is already expressing dissatisfaction with Turkey’s upgrading of its role in the Syrian civil war, everything indicates that Israel will, sooner or later, be forced to re-establish its communication channels with Turkey, based on the well-known adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” After all, despite the hypocritical US warnings to Ankara, it is essentially Washington that has given the Turkish military an important key role that will be able to curtail Iranian expansion. And Iranian expansionism is the most significant threat Israel is called upon to face.

On the other hand, Turkey has made the most of its geographical position so far. As a result, the United States continues to trust Turkey – despite Ankara’s tendency to approach both Moscow and Tehran in recent years. So, once again, Turkey is ready to embark on a difficult military adventure. However, it goes without saying that it wants a corresponding concession: A place on the energy map of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In light of the above, and given what happened in that distant summer of 1958, it is not unlikely that Turkey would ask Israel to change its stance on another front that is of strong interest to Turkish regional policy. This front has been around for a decade in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the Cyprus problem remaining unresolved, and becoming even more aggravated, after the discovery of natural gas deposits.

The question that arises is whether, finally, the network of relations that has been formed over the last decade between the Greek and Israeli regional actors is so powerful that it can restrain Israel so that it respects its commitments to the sovereign rights. of the Republic of Cyprus.

If there is a difference between the distant summer of 1958 and the fall of 2019, it is this: In 1958 Israel had absolutely nothing to lose, adopting an attitude that would not satisfy the then Greek interests concerning Cyprus – since Greece and Israel did not maintain full diplomatic relations, and Athens did not miss any opportunity to support the Arab world in a variety of ways. On the contrary, if in 2019 Israel wants to change its attitude towards the present energy balances in the Eastern Mediterranean to serve the maximalist demands of Ankara, then it automatically undermines the foundations of the wider energy planning of the Eastern Mediterranean, which is being promoted firstly and primarily by Washington, Brussels and Cairo, as well as by the international financial interests already involved in the EEZs of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt.

At this point, however, it would be good to look at the statements of Israeli officials from time to time, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Israel, timidly at first, began to coalesce on the murky waters of the energy map of the eastern Mediterranean. Following the great rift in Israeli-Turkish relations caused by the Mavi Marmara ship incident, and during the first, informal or not, bilateral and trilateral meetings between Israeli, Greek ,and Cypriot officials, the Israeli side emphasized that the tripartite collaboration in the energy sector was not directed against “any other third country”, implying Turkey.
We should also not forget the characteristic statements of the late Shimon Peres, when he was President of Israel, who had repeatedly expressed the view that “the nature of Israel’s cooperation with Cyprus and Greece is one thing, and the nature of Israeli co-operation with Turkey must be another”, apparently seeking to qualitatively and geographically separate the framework of co-operation that his country wished to promote with the Greek and Turkish actors respectively.

It is clear from the above that, ideally, Israel would like to focus on the issue of its energy security and the cultivation of smooth relations with the EU and European markets in general, drawing on its relations with Greece and the only legitimate government of Cyprus, that is, the Republic of Cyprus. At the same time, however, and always under ideal conditions, Israel would not want to lose the irreplaceable role of Turkey’s “security buttress” in order to cease to be vulnerable to the constant threat posed by the East – namely Iran and its presence in Syria and southern Lebanon.

Unfortunately, these ideal conditions that Israel would like to turn into reality are not possible. Squaring the circle of Greek-Turkish relations is a venture beyond the potential of Israeli diplomacy. And a first indication of what was to follow had emerged from that symbolic spectacular public attack launched by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at the then Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at the International Economic Forum in Davos on 29 January 2009, on the occasion of the situation in Gaza. It was the first manifestation of the pro-Arab card that Turkey was called upon to play once again after the Suez Crisis in 1956.

As in 1958, Ankara received, through Israel, the diplomatic support it sought, in the Cyprus problem, it is estimated that it will do exactly the same in 2019 or in the months following, provided that the course of events allows it.
Now, then, what remains to be proven is whether the foundations of the Greece-Cyprus-Israel tripartite regional co-operation are solid, on the one hand, and what precisely US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s utterly reassuring statements, from Athens, meant, on the eve of the withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria.


*Gabriel Haritos Ph.D. is Postdoctoral Fellow, Ben -Gurion Research Institute , Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs , University of Nicosia