Israeli leader pays historic visit to Cyprus (AP) Associated Press) By AMY TEIBEL and MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS NICOSIA, Cyprus 02/16/12 1:10 pm ET)
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NICOSIA, Cyprus – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a
historic visit to Cyprus on Thursday, aiming to strengthen what he
declared to be a "natural relationship" between the two countries in
a volatile and quickly changing region.
The visit was the first ever by an Israeli leader to the nearby
island nation, which along with Israel has natural gas interests in
the Mediterranean and is coping with rising tensions with Turkey.
Hours before Netanyahu´s arrival, the Turks threatened to halt
Nicosia from exploring in waters that Ankara says do not belong to
"I came here to develop our bilateral ties, our economic ties and
ties in the field of energy," Netanyahu said after talks with Cypriot
President Dimitris Christofias. "We´re interested in developing
peaceful relations for the benefit of our two countries and the
region as a whole."
In an apparent nod to Turkey, he added, "We have no ulterior motives
and no hidden motives here."
The two leaders discussed cooperation in energy matters, agriculture
and tourism, he said, and signed an agreement to offer reciprocal aid
in search and rescue missions at sea. Netanyahu also said Israel was
exploring the possibility of building a joint pipeline with Cyprus to
export some of the offshore gas deposits to Europe and Asia.
Although Cyprus is only a 50-minute flight away from Tel Aviv, ties
between the two have long been chilly.
Nicosia has long backed the Palestinians in their quest for an
independent state and looked on warily as Israel built military and
trade relations with regional powerhouse Turkey, which doesn´t
recognize Cyprus as a sovereign state and has occupied its north
But Israel´s relations with Turkey have deteriorated dramatically
over the past three years, while Cyprus has been looking to cement
ties with neighbors as a bulwark against Ankara´s growing regional
influence. Also, Cyprus can´t rely as before on top ally, Greece,
which is grappling with crushing financial problems.
Another bridge between Israel and Cyprus has been the discovery of
huge offshore natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea. The same
U.S. company, Noble Energy, is leading the exploration efforts in
both countries. It estimates finds of more than 25 trillion cubic
meters in Israeli waters and up to 230 billion cubic meters in
Turkey opposes any Greek Cypriot oil and gas search that denies
breakaway Turkish Cypriots what it contends is a rightful claim to
gas wealth. And it has dismissed a Cypriot-Israeli deal demarcating
their maritime borders as null and void.
In a statement released Wednesday, Turkey´s Foreign Ministry warned
that Ankara would "take all necessary measures to protect its rights
and interests." Unilateral steps by the Greek Cypriots, "would
inevitably lead to an escalation of tension in the region," it added.
Christofias condemned the statement, asserting Cyprus had a sovereign
right to explore the waters under international law that Turkey must
"Cooperation between Israel and Cyprus is a threat to no one
whatsoever. It serves only peaceful aims," Christofias said. "It´s
Turkey that´s threatening us ... the troublemaker is Turkey, not
cooperation between Cyprus and Israel."
Last year, Ankara dispatched a warship-escorted research vessel to
look for fuel in waters off Cyprus´ southern coast, provoking
Christofias to demand the Turks abandon their "gunboat diplomacy."
Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking
south and a breakaway Turkish-speaking north in 1974 after Turkey
invaded following a coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece.
Until recently, Turkey was Israel´s strongest ally in the Muslim
world but those ties frayed badly over Palestinian casualties during
Israel´s 2009 war in the Gaza Strip. Relations took another blow
after Israeli commandoes killed nine Turks aboard a Turkish-led
flotilla that tried to breach Israel´s naval blockade of Gaza in May
The rupture with Turkey and the rise of Islamic parties in the wake
of the Arab Spring have made Israel more vulnerable in a region
already hostile to the Jewish state and forced it to look for other
"There is no doubt that the loss of Turkey pushed Israel in the
direction of Greece and Cyprus," said Alon Liel, a former director of
Israel´s foreign ministry and one-time envoy to Turkey. "With Cyprus
it has become more significant because of the gas."
Energy security is a strategic concern for any country, but Israel
has other interests in courting Cyprus, said Tim Potier, political
analyst and law professor at the University of Nicosia.
"Israel is looking to strengthen bonds with a fast-dwindling list of
friendly neighbors as one-time regional friends and allies have
turned into potential rivals amid the tumult of the Arab Spring,"
Potier said. "Cyprus´ EU membership, proximity and own gas wealth
potential make the island a natural ally for an increasingly isolated
But Liel also said the growing Israel-Cyprus alliance could hurt
Israel by driving Turkey even further into the camp of Hamas
militants who rule Gaza.
"They (the Turks) see Israel aiding Cyprus and in return, they will
want to aid Hamas," he said. ___ Associated Press writer Aron Heller
contributed to this report from Jerusalem. (© 2012 The Associated
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