A democratic bloc in the eastern Mediterranean

Cyprus, Israel and Greece participated this week in their fourth trilateral meeting, in Nicosia. Launched in January 2016, the initiative enables the three countries to deepen the nature of their cooperation.

Energy is at the epicenter of their attention, although Cyprus and Israel currently disagree on the division of the Aphrodite reservoir.

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Finding an efficient way to transport natural gas from the Levantine Basin to Europe remains the ultimate common goal.

Opponents of the so-called EastMed pipeline project focus on its higher cost in comparison to alternative scenarios, such as the construction of a pipeline leading to Turkey or the usage of existing LNG facilities in Egypt. But it’s now time to put security first on the agenda. If realized, the EastMed will link three stable, democratic countries, strengthening a significant geopolitical bloc in a turbulent region and guaranteeing the harmonious flow of energy resources.

The EU and the US will only stand to gain from this for two reasons.

Firstly, EastMed can contribute to the reduction of energy dependence on Russia. This is a key priority for the West and, in particular, for the European Commission, as it is gradually building its energy union.

Secondly, it will function as a slap in the face of Turkey in a period during which its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is rolling out its neo-Ottoman policies in the Eastern Mediterranean, impacting the relations between his country and the West.

For instance, violations of the Cypriot exclusive economic zone by Turkish military vessels – driven by energy and political motivations – are not rare but have not yet been restrained. In spite of the interest of Exxon Mobil in conducting gas searches in Cypriot waters, the US prefers to keep equal distance between Cyprus and Greece on the one hand, and Turkey on the other.

And the EU is clearly unable to play a diplomatic role because it lacks the means, as well as the unity and gravitas, to make its presence felt in the Eastern Mediterranean. European verbal statements might satisfy public opinion in Cyprus and Greece but are ignored by Turkish authorities.

Israel also diagnoses risks for its national interest by Erdogan’s destabilizing policies. Turkey’s support of Hamas in parallel with the obscure terms of its cooperation with Russia in Syria constitute some examples.

The more Ankara’s tactics are exposed by Cyprus, Israel and Greece, the more the international community becomes aware.

Recently, the discussion has become lively even in the US. Jewish-American and Greek-American organizations are joining forces to promote security and defense cooperation between the US, Cyprus, Israel and Greece. The potential restriction of F-35 jet sales to Turkey until the country starts behaving responsibly could be an initial tangible result.

From another perspective, trilateral meetings such as the Nicosia one help Greece and Cyprus to familiarize themselves with Israel’s sensitivities regarding Iran. Irrespective of the future of the nuclear agreement after the announced US withdrawal by President Donald Trump, and the alignment of the Cypriot and Greek positions with that of the EU, security is no longer ignored by Nicosia and Athens.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after meeting his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu that he shares Jerusalem’s concerns about Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis sent a similar message in an interview he granted before the meeting.

It’s not all about politics though.

Political elites’ agreements need some public support, especially in societies such as the Greek one, which has been pro-Arab for decades. In that regard, some recent manifestations of antisemitism should cause skepticism.

A few weeks ago, a Greek cartoonist compared the situation in the Gaza Strip with the Holocaust and drew a parallel between Israeli policies and Nazi practices. Also, a Jewish cemetery around Athens was vandalized. Acts of antisemitism are a major obstacle in the Cypriot-Greek-Israeli partnership and have to be punished as well as prevented. More importantly, they emphasize the need for better education for the next generation.

The author is a non-resident senior associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.