Greece, Israel and Cyprus talk enhanced cooperation

Amid continuing regional and global challenges, the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel and Cyprus met on August 22 in Jerusalem and discussed enhancing their cooperation in security, climate change and fighting the pandemic. They also discussed developments in the East Med, Lebanon, Middle East and North Africa, including the fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan and its possible impact on refugee flows and rise in terrorism. 

This was the first such meeting since the installation of a new government in Israel, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, giving it particular significance. The statements made after the meeting confirm the close relationship that has developed between the three countries over the years, driven by common interests in confronting regional problems, particularly threats generated by an expansionist Turkey.

The abrupt and chaotic departure of the US from Afghanistan is a cause of concern in a region that needs the Americans to play an active role as a balancing factor in reigning in Turkey’s ambitions to step-in and to exploit any geopolitical vacuum in the region.

Undoubtedly, given such common concerns, the agenda of these tripartite meetings – but also others involving Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – is expanding, with regional security gaining particular importance. Development and exploitation of East Med hydrocarbons is no longer the driving factor. If anything, this did not even come up during the discussions, other than briefly, with priority given to climate change.

The three foreign miniters stressed the need for unity to face common challenges. They also called on other countries of the region that share similar values and principles to participate in a broader cooperation for the good of the region and their countries.

This was stressed by Israel’s FM, Yair Lapid, who said “this friendship is established on solid foundations and common values. At today’s meeting important strategic issues were discussed in the common agenda of the countries, as well as challenges and opportunities, immediate and long-term, local and global. When we face challenges, we are stronger to face them together. When we face opportunities, we will be able to make the most of them together.”

He added that the tripartite cooperation is a strategic advantage for all because “we are strengthening our economy, our security, our international status. And it is a key part of something bigger, a key part of a change that is happening in the region, a moderate, realistic alliance that looks to the future, a growing group of countries that work together for a common vision, in the Persian Gulf, Morocco in North Africa, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East, Cyprus and Greece in the Mediterranean.” In particular, he stressed their common vision on energy, innovation, trade and development, culture and tourism.

Regional issues

All three countries experienced devastating fires during this summer. Greece’s foreign miniter thanked both Israel and Cyprus for the support they provided to Greece to extinguish the fires that devastated half of Evia and threatened Athens and Olympia. 

Returning his thanks, Lapid said “When I asked you both for help last week, you did not hesitate, you immediately said yes …This is a true friendship.”

The three discussed extending cooperation to wildfire control and protection of the environment.

In a separate development, in a telephone conversation on August 20, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed that their two countries face similar challenges regarding wildfires and likely refugee problems that may arise from the recent developments in Afghanistan.

They agreed that the recent fires in Greece and Turkey, as well as climate change and protection of the environment, are areas in which there can be bilateral cooperation.

Dendias and Christodoulides discussed energy cooperation with Israel’s new energy minister, Karine Elharrar, including climate change, electricity connectivity, renewables and natural gas.

In addition, Cyprus’ FM Nikos Christodoulides briefed his Greek and Israeli colleagues on Turkey’s provocative actions in Cyprus, especially regarding Varosha. He stressed that Ankara’s behavior “concerns all of us”, and called on Turkey to “stop operating as a troublemaker in the region, and to respect international law.” Lapid confirmed previously that Israel is concerned over what it considers “Turkey’s provocative moves in northern Cyprus.”

However, recent uncompromising statements by Ersin Tatar, the hardline Turkish Cypriot leader, that he will press for a two-state solution at the UN next month do not bode well. Following the strong reactions against this by both the EU and the US, the UN is examining avenues to restart discussions when all involved parties are in New York for the UN summit in September – but expectations are low.

Wider regional cooperation

Dendias referred to efforts to create a wider alliance of like-minded countries in the region. He said “our goal is to find new ways to institutionalize the involvement of our strategic partners in our tripartite relationship.”

This was confirmed by Christodoulides who said “the next steps and actions will be on issues such as the expansion of our network to regional partners and joint cooperation in critical areas.”

The foreign ministers recognized that regional cooperation and dialogue are now taking on a special dimension through developments such as the historic agreements to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. 

Dendias said that these have created “a momentum that we must maintain and build on,” adding that the involvement of the US in a ‘3+1’ cooperation is bringing significant added value. He capped it all by saying “the best way to deal with today’s problems is with friends, building bridges of stability and prosperity for all, open to all willing countries in Europe, the Middle East, the Gulf and beyond.”

These discussions will be followed by a summit between the three countries at the leader-level, to be convened in Cyprus before the end of the year.

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