(January 2, 2019 / KDJ) Israel is making lemonade out of lemons. After decades of solid ties with Turkey, the current dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has decided to engage in Islamism and anti-Semitic rhetoric. As such, Israel has turned away from Ankara and towards Nicosia & Athens. These two rivals of Turkey have traditionally been skeptical of Jerusalem, but shared concern of the Turkish dictatorship and the benefits of forming an energy alliance have brought all three countries closer together.
While this is indeed something to celebrate, I fear that Israel is ignoring another potential partner in the region: Turkish-Cypriots. Israel has strong ties with secular, former Soviet republics in Central Asia with Muslim-majority and Turkic populations. These include Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Israel would be wise to cultivate a closer relationship with the Turkish-Cypriot community in the north of Cyprus, differentiating between Ankara & North Nicosia.
A Model Minority?
Turkish-Cypriots are still staunchly secular and Kemalist in their outlook–the same attitudes once exhibited by Turkey during its golden age in relations with Israel. The creeping religious influence of Erdoğan on the island has been met by locals with negative reception. Some fear that it will turn the conflict with the Greek-Cypriots into a religious one. President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, has voiced similar concerns. Politically, Turkish-Cypriots also have a high degree of disdain for the current regime in Ankara. Its mismanagement of the Turkish economy–which the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is dependent on–has led to protests on the northern chunk of Cyprus. Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Afrika has also protested over the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish-majority Afrin region of Rojava (northern Syria), comparing it to Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974.
Israel has growing ties with Arab countries that are in the process of secularizing. Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman have both reached out to the Jewish state. Riyadh and Cairo both view the “old guard” of the Arab World as problematic in its approach towards religious extremism. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist Qatar, along with the proliferation of Sunni jihadist organizations in the region, are seen as huge concerns for Egypt, Israel, and the Saudi Crown Prince.
The TRNC, however, has no such problems with religious extremism, and has developed into a pro-European, modern entity that is compatible with many of the peaceful values and economic goals of modernizing regional leaderships. It has much in common, when it comes to secularism and modernization, with Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava, and Azerbaijan.
Growing Diplomatic Clout
As Israel tightens its relationship with Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and certain Arab countries, it would do well to reach out to the TRNC as well. Forming some sort of relationship with the TRNC doesn’t mean betraying the Greek-Cypriots or Greece. Israeli ties with North Cyprus could be akin to growing Arab ties with Israel–short of full diplomatic relations (besides Jordan & Egypt), yet gradually heading in that direction.
Closer ties between Israel and the TRNC could also herald a new regional role for Jerusalem. The United Nations and European Union have failed in their various missions to reunite Cyprus. The UN is a toothless organization that plays no role on the island–besides occupying its nicest hotel and keeping Cypriots away from the Nicosia Airport so that British tourists can golf there. The European Union tried to facilitate a peace deal, yet left the Turkish-Cypriots isolated despite their acceptance of the Annan Plan.
Israel should replace both bodies as a facilitator. The Jewish state would benefit tremendously from peace on the island, as it would decrease the hold Turkey has over the Turkish-Cypriot community and open new markets to Jerusalem. At the same time, it would also decrease tensions on the island, give Israel more political & diplomatic clout in the region, and promote a model of peacemaking that is local, rather than dominated by Western colonial powers. Moreover, it would further isolate the aggressive Turkish government and its imperial designs on the Levant. All the while, it would give a louder voice to the moderate, secular model of the TRNC in a way that could provide a positive influence upon other Muslim-majority states in the region.
Jews feel safe in North Cyprus in a way that is not common for Jews in many Muslim countries. Diplomatic ties, along with investments and tourism between Israel and Turkish-Cyprus are already on the upswing. As such, Israel has enough influence and good relations with both sides of the Cyprus Problem to help resolve it as a trusted mediator.
A resolution on the island, or even just increased ties with the North, could bring the Turkish-Cypriots away from being dominated by the Turkish economy and into the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli energy alliance. All sides would benefit from such a development. The Turkish-Cypriot economy would become much more independent and developed as a result of joining in on the venture, while Greece & Greek Cyprus would be able to form small-scale joint ventures with the North that could build trust and pave the way to a just and lasting peace. Meanwhile, Israel would gain valuable experience in peacemaking that could provide tips for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. As the United States increases its role in the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli partnership, it would do well to encourage such a role for Israel.