The Israeli press have been hailing recent defence summits between military leaders of Greece, Cyprus and Israel. As summed up in the revisionist “Israeli” outlet Haaretz, “IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was hosted for the first time by his Greek counterpart, while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman hosted the Greek defense minister in Israel. These meetings followed a major improvement in military ties between Israel and Greece and Cyprus. They were preceded, only last year, by visits to Greece by both Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, the visits by the Greek and Cypriot chiefs of staff in Israel, visits by commanders of Israel’s navy and ground forces in Greece, and what seems even more important: frequent joint military exercises. IDF commandos trained in Cyprus while air force planes train very frequently in the skies over Greece and Cyprus”.
What the article does not mention however is that Turkey is currently in a wide ranging dispute over eastern Mediterranean maritime gas fields. Turkey is currently locked in a dispute regarding the ownership of maritime gas fields with both Cyprus and Egypt. Both Nicosia and Cairo accuse Turkey of encroaching on gas fields in their maritime jurisdiction while Turkey remains adamant that Egypt’s interpretation of maritime boundaries are inaccurate while also claiming that Turkey’s de-facto, but internationally unrecognised sovereignty over northern Cyprus means that off shore gas fields off the island belong to Anakra rather than Nicosia.
At the same time, Israel has claimed sovereignty over Lebanese off-shore gas fields, a dispute which has led to escalations in tensions in the region, with Tel Aviv threatening war and Lebanese officials vowing to fight back till the end rather than surrender its gas to “Israel”.
Throughout all of this, Turkey has taken to criticising Israel over both its support for Kurdish separatism in Iraq while also slamming Israel for its desire to work with the United States in order to receive limited recognition of Jerusalem/Al-Quds as the Israeli capital.
Thus, one sees Turkey engaging in both a soft power and territorial dispute with Israel. Israel’s historic and contemporary support for Kurdish ethno-nationalism, something Benjamin Netanyahu has been more vocal about than most of his predecessors, has clearly angered Turkey. During the hight of the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq in the autumn of 2017, Turkey’s powerful President Erdogan threatened to cut ties with Tel Aviv over “Israeli” support for Kurdish separatism in Iraq.
In terms of soft-power projection, Erdogan has become one of the loudest voices in the region to protest the US decision to recognise Jerusalem/Al-Quds as the “Israeli” capital. Erdogan even organised a meeting of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation during which he gave a lengthy speech on the Palestinian cause in which he reserved very harsh criticism for Israel. Moreover, in spite of differences in certain areas over the Syria conflict, Erdogan seems to have reached a gentleman’s agreement with Iran to be the kind of Sunni Muslim spokesman for Al-Quds, while Iran remains the undisputed leader of pro-Palestinian activism in the wider Shi’a world. Iranian President Rouhani’s positive contributions to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation summit in Turkey serve to demonstrate the healthy existence of such an agreement, in spite of the asymmetrical but nevertheless undeniably improved relations between Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
While the major Sunni Arab powers including Egypt and the Gulf monarchies say little about Palestine, Erdogan continues to project himself as an international defender of the Arab world’s most important cause. In spite of being Turkish, much of the Arab world, particularly in Sunni countries, have in fact come to see Erdogan in a positive light over Al-Quds – much to the chagrin of Egypt’s President Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
While Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to establish relations with Tel Aviv, the aforementioned recent events have put a strain on this relationship and have ended the short lived rapprochement between Turkey and “Israel” in the aftermath of the MV Mavi Marmara atrocity of 2010. While Turkey has not cut ties with Tel Aviv, for Erdogan, relations with the wider Sunni-Muslim world trump any lingering desire to re-start Turkey’s historically healthy relationship with Israel.
By reaching out to the Hellenic world, Israel has both demonstrated that it is looking for a regional substitute for its dying (perhaps already dead?) Turkish partnership, while at the same time, fulfilling its own prognostication insofar as Turkey will clearly see Tel Aviv’s outreach to Nicosia and Athens as a direct provocation. Given the context of historically dreadful Helleno-Turkish relations and current tensions regarding both gas and territorial disputes, Israel is not naive enough to think that Turkey will not get the message. For Turkey’s part, it is also clear that Israel is no longer needed.
An interesting question then arises over Lebanon. As one of Turkey’s neighbours, Lebanon has had generally frosty to uneventful relations with Ankara. Due to Lebanon’s multi-cultural composition, opinions on Turkey are varied in the country, but it is fair to say that among many if not most Lebanese, views of Turkey are similarly negative to those held by Syrians. That being said, if Turkey were to take Lebanon’s side in its gas dispute with Israel, Turkey could gain a much needed inroad to a multi-cultural Arab state that it has long desired, all while balancing Israel’s pivot towards the Hellenic world which could possibly see “Israel” openly taking a pro-Cyprus position vis-a-vis Turkey. For its part, Lebanon could use Turkey as an energy partner in order to off-set threats by Israel, because while the Lebanese have no natural affection for Turkey, what is much more important is that Israel does not want a protracted energy dispute with Turkey, irrespective of how much Tel Aviv likes to goad Turkey over the Kurdish issue.
What is clear is that the geopolitical dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean have changed dramatically in a short number of years. Israel is embracing Hellenic states whose populations have been historically pro-Palestine, while Turkey is embracing new partnerships in the Arab world that could possibly, through the embrace of pragmatism even include the seemingly unlikely partner of Lebanon.
For Greece and Cyprus, both countries are clearly looking for a strong military partner against Turkey, but if any political or military leader in Greece or Cyprus actually thinks that Israel would fight a war on their behalf, they clearly know nothing about “Israel” and its military history.