What do Cyprus and Israel have in common? My most recent visit included delivering a talk at Nicosia University and meetings with senior diplomats and journalists. After several trips and dozens of conversations, it seems that the most remarkable harmony between the two societies lies in the grim determination that they will not be this generation’s Czechoslovakia. In the 1930s Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the great powers of Europe. The Munich Pact illustrated the futility of appeasing dictators. It remains to this day the tragic illustration of what can be done to a tiny independent state that does not effectively defend itself.
Both Israel and Cyprus live in a tough, unforgiving neighborhood that is swiftly evolving with the rise of Muslim Brotherhood dominated regimes. As small states with powerful enemies, both know that they are potentially only one decision away from national catastrophe. Greek Cypriots learned this the hard way when a group of “paleo-nationalists” led the misbegotten coup against the country’s first president, Archbishop Makarios, in 1974. The coup led to the Turkish invasion and de facto division of the island.
Israel and Cyprus share the experience of having few cards to play but playing them with success. In 1974 few would have imagined that Cyprus could stabilize itself in the face of the overwhelming power of Turkey, and go on to become a full member of the EU. IN 1948 few predicted Israel, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, would overcoming them, going from an undeveloped newborn country to the powerhouse we know today.
Cyprus and Israel have complex history regarding each other. Cyprus spent decades as a member of the Nonaligned Movement, the bloc of developing nations that was notoriously unfriendly toward the Jewish State. It has a long history of excellent relations with the Arab states of the region. This strategy has not disappeared. Recently Cyprus joined with a number of other EU states to vote in favor of admitting Palestine to UNESCO. Israel’s closest relationship in the region was with the Cypriots’ archenemy Turkey, until Prime Minister Erdogan dismantled it. In short, until recently these two small states pursued unlinked and sometimes un-neighborly policies in order to protect their respective interests as they understood them. But the region changed. The Erdogan government’s disruption of the Israeli-Turkish relationship came at roughly the same time as discoveries of large fields of oil and gas in the Mediterranean Sea between Cyprus and the Jewish State. At the same time, the Greek and Israeli governments entered a period of growing cooperation. Greece and Cyprus enjoy extremely close relations. All three country’s leaderships realize that a strong Israel-Cyprus-Greece strategic, economic and diplomatic alignment makes great sense.
However, as Cyprus and Israel reach out to build that relationship, the change in policy will require a deeper change in orientation toward each other and perhaps toward the region. This is a difficult process that needs to take place not only in the political echelon and public opinion (where strong anecdotal evidence suggests it is gaining ground) but also among the diplomatic and security elites. In both countries the security elites continue to focus on Turkey in a way that can tilt decision making. For the Cypriots, there is aversion to taking steps that may directly or indirectly strengthen Turkey’s relationships in the region. For Israelis, there is still a hope in the hearts of some that the relationship with Turkey can somehow be revived. Here is the part of the process of change that cannot be rushed if it is to be done effectively.
To be sure, the Cyprus-Israel relationship is moving forward at a quick clip, helped along by the shared perception that major powers lean toward Turkey to the detriment of both countries and coupled with the shared determination to avoid a Czechoslovak fate. The political class in both countries naturally wants to “show results,” moving quickly to get headlines by signing agreements.
Israelis hope Cyprus can be a friend in the EU and international organizations, a partner in the development of the gas fields and an opening in the wall of hostility surrounding her. Cypriots hope that Israel will strengthen the island in its ongoing confrontation with the Turks and partner in developing the gas fields. They see benefit to hitching their wagon to the star of the Israeli economy. Ideally, Cypriots would like to achieve this without sacrificing their relationship with the Arab world.
Both sides bring legitimate hopes to the relationship but the pace may be too fast. With the Cypriot vote on Palestine at UNESCO, we saw that there is a danger of failure to clarify each side’s expectations. Mutual disappointment over unrealistic hopes could endanger the whole effort. Build slowly and build solid.
Ed Rettig directs AJC Jerusalem, the Israel office of American Jewish Committee