In the eastern Mediterranean, blue & white (and possibly red) are beginning to cooperate. By this, I am referring to the Israeli, Cypriot & Greek flags, with potentially the US flag as well. The discovery of massive hydrocarbon deposits in the Mediterranean has been a boon for tripartite relations between Israel, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey is shifting away from the West and towards Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, ties between Jerusalem and Ankara are at a historic low point. As such, the relationship between Nicosia, Athens, and Jerusalem may be critical for regional security and economic potential for decades to come.
A Chilly Start
Historically, Greece & Cyprus were rather chilly towards Israel. Turkey has long been an arch-enemy of Greece. It also has a strained relationship with Cyprus, particularly since the 1974 Turkish intervention on the island that led to its de facto partition. Until 2010, however, Israel and Turkey had a solid relationship. Israel’s close ties with the United States also were cause for strain with Greece & Cyprus. The US was supportive of Georgios Papadopoulos’ far-right, anti-communist dictatorship in Athens. The junta led to widespread suffering for the Greek people and contributed to the situation that resulted in the Cyprus Problem.
Furthermore, the Greek and Greek-Cypriot populations tend to be quite left-wing in their political orientation. This has led widespread criticism of hawkish Israeli security policies. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had a significant presence in Athens. Arab blackmail–threats of expulsion, execution, or discrimination against the Greek diaspora in Arab countries–pushed Athens to take a very critical public stance towards Jerusalem. For decades, this held even when ties were good under-the-table. Of course, Egypt expelled most of its ethnically-Greek population anyways.
Also contributing to tense historic relations were cultural factors. Nazi collaborators in northern Greece–particularly Thessaloniki–helped the occupying German military exterminate one of the oldest Sephardic communities in the world. In today’s Greece, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn Party spreads anti-Semitic propaganda. Warnings of a Jewish conspiracy for a “second Hannukah” have become common among extremist sectors in Greek society. Meanwhile, there have also been controversies with the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
Cyprus & Greece have recalibrated their strategy–as has Israel–in recent years. US ties with Athens have grown much warmer in the past few years. Turkey’s government has gone from being pro-Western and secular to an authoritarian dictatorship. As the European Union and the United States have cooled to Turkey, Greece has stepped in.
Greece, Cyprus, and Israel have also engaged in military cooperation. Due to topographic similarities between Cyprus and southern Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have trained on the island to prepare for future confrontations with Hezbollah. Israel has also trained in Greece to overcome the Russian S-300 missile defense system, which Moscow recently placed in Syria.
The Israeli-Greek-Cypriot gas pipeline to Europe is a revolution in itself. For decades, the Arab & Iranian oil lobbies have left Europe with little choice but to apply constant pressure on the Israeli government about “Middle East peace.” Russia has also had a monopoly over natural gas exports to Europe, particularly Germany, for many years. Separately, Turkey was on hold as a prospective EU member-state. Despite its illegal presence in Cyprus and its undemocratic character, Ankara plays a pivotal role in keeping refugees and migrants away from Europe. But regional realities are changing.
Due to increased hostility from Russia and Turkey, it is important for many European countries (and Brussels itself, perhaps) to decouple from both countries. As the Syrian Civil War winds down, it is assumed that many refugees will be returning home. There will be fewer people leaving the country, in all likelihood, to reach the shores of Europe. As such, Turkey’s utility for absorbing migrants will decrease. Russian and Turkish joint threats to the stability of the region–in particular, Greece and Cyprus–need to be taken into account. Furthermore, Turkey has gone against international consensus by promoting all-out partition in Cyprus. Ankara has tried to make the north more religious, which makes many Turkish-Cypriots fear an outright annexation could be in the offing.
A New Regional Order?
In other events, Israel would benefit from seeing Europe less reliant on the “oil lobby” from its enemies. Perhaps Brussels would be more supportive of the Jewish state if local energy alternatives (particularly from two EU members) replaced them. Iran’s oil market has already been devastated by renewed US sanctions. And the human rights abuses prevalent in Arab countries is slowly turning away Western consumers and governments, who would rather invest in cleaner energy. With combatting climate change becoming a global priority and alternative energy resources from Canada & the US, it’s not hard to envision Europe weaning itself off of Middle Eastern crude in both the medium-term and the long-term.
At the same time, the UAE plans to invest in the energy pipeline to Europe, which demonstrates Israel’s increasing ties with Gulf Arab countries. Israel, along with the “moderate Arab states,” have vested interests in seeing Islamist Turkey & Russia isolated. Egypt has its own natural gas reserves, and plans to cooperate with the Israeli-Cypriot-Greek plan. Bulgaria, Serbia, and Italy have also expressed either interest or participation, with Jordan importing Israeli gas as well.
The Western powers failed to prevent Russia from gaining a foothold in Syria. However, the emerging “Axis of Antiquity” is an alternative way to freeze Moscow and Ankara out of the eastern Mediterranean. Greece, Israel, and Arab countries have long hoped that the US would engage in the Levant–and now it seems that’s becoming a reality. US engagement would provide a security umbrella for an unstable region while deterring Turkish, Iranian, or Russian aggression.
Israel, Greece, and the Greek-Cypriots have ancient cultures embedded in the region. The modern Greek and Israeli states, as well as the Republic of Cyprus, are seen by many in these countries (and beyond) as the inheritors of ancient civilizations, now liberated from Ottoman, Arab, and European occupation. Increased cultural ties and tourism between the three countries have helped chart a new path for the future of Mediterranean cooperation.
Perhaps most impressively, all three countries have worked together to heighten their importance to the European Union. As western European countries begin to decline and destabilize for a myriad of reasons, the long-neglected Greece & Cyprus, through the pipeline deal, will be able to draw more attention to the southeast. This could portend a future for Europe that gives more weight to coalitions of smaller, less powerful countries rather than just a few heavyweights. Moreover, Israel will have more leverage in Europe due to its importance as an energy exporter.
On a smaller scale, this alliance gives more credence to the argument for regionalism and micromanagement. The United States has often taken the unilateral approach when dealing with world affairs. It will cooperate with other countries when necessary, but tends to go it alone when this is in Washington’s best interests. America’s status as the sole global superpower has help make this possible. Western European countries prefer multilateral cooperation in forums such as the United Nations or in the EU, yet they do so from a position that theoretically weakens Washington’s power and gives more importance to them. China and Russia both prefer the regional model, yet couldn’t care less about the value of human rights of democratic institutions. Despite claiming to support diplomacy, multilateralism, or regionalism, however, Beijing, Moscow, and Brussels still operate in neo-imperial ways in their “near abroad” areas or former colonies. The proof is in Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea; Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia; and EU support for regime change in Libya.
The Axis of Antiquity provides for another model. It allows for multilateral cooperation that makes room for the US, rather than seeking to weaken it. After all, all three countries are very friendly with Washington. It also promotes a regionalist way for using diplomacy and solving problems while adhering to Western values. The Greek civilization gave the world democracy. The ancient Israelites gave the world the Bible. Now, the inheritors of both civilizations are coming together to give the world an alternative political system that minimizes foreign, neo-colonial interference while promoting diplomacy, economic growth, and democratic values.