NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a historic visit to Cyprus on Thursday, aiming to strengthen what he declared to be a “natural relationship” between the two countries in a volatile and quickly changing region.
The visit was the first ever by an Israeli leader to the nearby island nation, which along with Israel has natural gas interests in the Mediterranean and is coping with rising tensions with Turkey. Hours before Netanyahu’s arrival, the Turks threatened to halt Nicosia from exploring in waters that Ankara says do not belong to Cyprus.
“I came here to develop our bilateral ties, our economic ties and ties in the field of energy,” Netanyahu said after talks with Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias. “We’re interested in developing peaceful relations for the benefit of our two countries and the region as a whole.”
In an apparent nod to Turkey, he added, “We have no ulterior motives and no hidden motives here.”
The two leaders discussed cooperation in energy matters, agriculture and tourism, he said, and signed an agreement to offer reciprocal aid in search and rescue missions at sea. Netanyahu also said Israel was exploring the possibility of building a joint pipeline with Cyprus to export some of the offshore gas deposits to Europe and Asia.
Although Cyprus is only a 50-minute flight away from Tel Aviv, ties between the two have long been chilly.
Nicosia has long backed the Palestinians in their quest for an independent state and looked on warily as Israel built military and trade relations with regional powerhouse Turkey, which doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a sovereign state and has occupied its north since 1974.
But Israel’s relations with Turkey have deteriorated dramatically over the past three years, while Cyprus has been looking to cement ties with neighbors as a bulwark against Ankara’s growing regional influence. Also, Cyprus can’t rely as before on top ally, Greece, which is grappling with crushing financial problems.
Another bridge between Israel and Cyprus has been the discovery of huge offshore natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea. The same U.S. company, Noble Energy, is leading the exploration efforts in both countries. It estimates finds of more than 25 trillion cubic meters in Israeli waters and up to 230 billion cubic meters in Cypriot waters.
Turkey opposes any Greek Cypriot oil and gas search that denies breakaway Turkish Cypriots what it contends is a rightful claim to gas wealth. And it has dismissed a Cypriot-Israeli deal demarcating their maritime borders as null and void.
In a statement released Wednesday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry warned that Ankara would “take all necessary measures to protect its rights and interests.” Unilateral steps by the Greek Cypriots, “would inevitably lead to an escalation of tension in the region,” it added.
Christofias condemned the statement, asserting Cyprus had a sovereign right to explore the waters under international law that Turkey must respect.
“Cooperation between Israel and Cyprus is a threat to no one whatsoever. It serves only peaceful aims,” Christofias said. “It’s Turkey that’s threatening us … the troublemaker is Turkey, not cooperation between Cyprus and Israel.”
Last year, Ankara dispatched a warship-escorted research vessel to look for fuel in waters off Cyprus’ southern coast, provoking Christofias to demand the Turks abandon their “gunboat diplomacy.”
Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a breakaway Turkish-speaking north in 1974 after Turkey invaded following a coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece.
Until recently, Turkey was Israel’s strongest ally in the Muslim world but those ties frayed badly over Palestinian casualties during Israel’s 2009 war in the Gaza Strip. Relations took another blow after Israeli commandoes killed nine Turks aboard a Turkish-led flotilla that tried to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza in May 2010.
The rupture with Turkey and the rise of Islamic parties in the wake of the Arab Spring have made Israel more vulnerable in a region already hostile to the Jewish state and forced it to look for other alliances.
“There is no doubt that the loss of Turkey pushed Israel in the direction of Greece and Cyprus,” said Alon Liel, a former director of Israel’s foreign ministry and one-time envoy to Turkey. “With Cyprus it has become more significant because of the gas.”
Energy security is a strategic concern for any country, but Israel has other interests in courting Cyprus, said Tim Potier, political analyst and law professor at the University of Nicosia.
“Israel is looking to strengthen bonds with a fast-dwindling list of friendly neighbors as one-time regional friends and allies have turned into potential rivals amid the tumult of the Arab Spring,” Potier said. “Cyprus’ EU membership, proximity and own gas wealth potential make the island a natural ally for an increasingly isolated Israel.”
But Liel also said the growing Israel-Cyprus alliance could hurt Israel by driving Turkey even further into the camp of Hamas militants who rule Gaza.
“They (the Turks) see Israel aiding Cyprus and in return, they will want to aid Hamas,” he said.
Associated Press writer Aron Heller contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
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