Turkey is freezing defence trade with Israel and stepping up naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean, highlighting a potentially destabilising rift between the two major US allies in the Middle East and raising the spectre of further instability over Cyprus. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to send warships into waters where Israel’s navy operates raises the risk of a naval confrontation between the two powers. As tensions between the two regional powerhouses escalate, Cyprus could find itself in the middle of any confrontation.
Israel has already expanded patrols in the eastern Mediterranean to enforce the Gaza blockade it says is needed to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas and deter any Lebanese Hezbollah militant attack on gas platforms.
Asked about exploratory drilling for natural gas by Greek Cypriots, Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s European Union minister, told Turkish media last week: “It is for this (reason) that countries have warships. It is for this (reason) that we have equipment and we train our navies.”
Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu was quoted in the Turkish Cypriot press as warning that Cyprus could not act in “semi-open seas” without the consent of neighbouring countries like Turkey. He added that the breakaway state would reciprocate with its own explorations if Cyprus goes ahead with plans to drill.
Speaking to Greek military officers stationed on the island, House President Yiannakis Omirou called on Cyprus and Greece to be ready to face any challenges, noting that Turkey was acting like an “international pirate”, using gunboat diplomacy. “We expect the EU to take on its responsibilities,” said Omirou.
Erdogan’s comments on Israel mark the latest stage in the deteriorating relationship between the two former regional allies, with Cyprus’ own energy hopes closing the triangle of potential instability in the eastern Mediterranean. Ties with Israel began to unravel after Erdogan voiced outrage at an Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group, in late 2008 and early 2009. Before that Turkey and Israel had worked closely together on military cooperation and intelligence sharing, as both had sought reliable partners in a volatile neighborhood.
Last Friday, Turkey announced it was expelling Israel’s ambassador and other senior diplomats, and downgrading relations after the release of a UN report on the killing of nine Turks during an Israeli commando raid on an aid flotilla that aimed to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza last year. Israel’s refusal to apologise for the deaths has angered Turkey, a NATO member with the bloc’s second biggest military. And Turkey has also taken issue with the UN panel’s conclusion that Israel’s blockade is a legitimate measure to stop weapons reaching Hamas militants in Gaza, an impoverished, densely populated enclave of two million people.
Erdogan will also attend the UN General Assembly in New York later this month where he is likely to give strong backing to Palestinian efforts to win UN recognition for a state they aim to create in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.