07/06/2012 04:22
Israel’s decision to partner with Cyprus on gas exploration could further strain tense relations, expert tells ‘Post’.

Israel’s decision to become an active partner with Cyprus on issues of natural gas – despite the island nation’s unsolved political disputes with Turkey – has left Ankara “disturbed” by its ally, according to a Turkish expert.

“Turkey feels a little bit disturbed,” Prof. Mitat Celikpala of Kadir Has University in Istanbul told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Not betrayed, not put aside, but a little bit disturbed from all those happenings. What we want is to solve the Cyprus issue first, and then we cooperate. There is no question mark.”

While Celikpala said he understands that Israel, like every country, has its own economic and trade interests, as a “partner and ally of Turkey,” it behooves the state to work together with its northern neighbor.

Celikpala spoke with the Post on the sidelines of a conference titled “Natural Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean: Casus Belli or Chance for Regional Cooperation?” held Thursday at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, where he was a speaker. The conference – which took a comprehensive look at the legal, geopolitical and regional cooperation implications of the region’s natural gas finds – was organized jointly by the INSS, Israeli-European Policy Network, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Academic Foundation, Universität der Bundeswhr Munchen and the Macro Center for Political Economics.

Experts and conference attendees included representatives from around the world, including Israel, Turkey, EU states, the US, Canada and others, and notably, the ambassadors from Cyprus, Austria and Belgium.

Israel’s decision to partner with Cyprus on natural gas exploration could potentially place further strain on the already tense but “important” relations between Turkey and Israel, Celikpala told the Post.

“Cyprus is an issue for Turkey, a political one,” he said. “The European Union membership of Cyprus, the Greek Cypriots, sort of blew Turkey’s policies. It stopped and restricted Turkey’s options. “ Turkey, at the moment, does not immediately need the energy resources found in the Eastern Mediterranean as it has plenty of its own, so Ankara would first like to find a solution to the Cyprus political issue, according to Celikpala. An independent, Greek Cypriot government is the island’s recognized EU member, but a Northern Cypriot population associates itself with Turkey.

“It is natural for Israel to have its own resources and produce all those resources,” Celikpala said. “But establishing security relations by making energy cooperation a basis between Israel and Cyprus is a threat for Turkey.”

‘Violation of sea border could be cause for war under UN convention’

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) was signed in 1982 by 162 countries, a convention from which both the US and Israel abstained, explained Prof. Daniel Erasmus Khan, of the Universität der Bundeswhr Munchen. UNCLOS defines the rights and commitments of countries to use and maintain the sea, and restricts the number of nautical miles from the shore that belong to each relevant seaside nation. Through the UN convention, escalation was resolved in a natural resources dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as another between Romania and Ukraine, Khan said.

Under UNCLOS, violations of sea delimitations that have been signed and ratified by bordering countries could in fact constitute a casus belli – something as bad as a land violation, according to Khan.

“Tensions may suddenly erupt and arise when natural resources come into play,” Khan said.

While Israel has abstained from ratifying the convention, it largely abides by its rules and predominantly sees it as a binding contract, said Sarah Weiss Ma’udi, of the International Law Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Turkey, like Israel and the US, is not a signatory member of UNCLOS, but largely subscribes to it, according to Prof. Harry Tzimitras of Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

“Politically speaking, because of instability in the area, Turkey wishes to have a foot and thus has less of an incentive to delimit things,” Tzimitras said.

In terms of agreeing on maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus and Egypt agreed to the first one in 2003 – while Cyprus and Lebanon agreed to one in 2007 but never ratified the agreement – and Cyprus and Israel signed and ratified their agreement in 2010, Khan said. There is no mutually agreed upon delimitation boundary between Israel and Lebanon, and it is difficult to imagine one occurring in the future, he added.

“I’m not an optimist regarding whether the wealth that’s in the seabed will actually be used for political reconciliation,” said Dr. Rem Korteweg, of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies in the Netherlands. “One of the fundamental problems I see is a tenacity of zero-sum thinking regarding what to do with the gas finds.”

If all the relevant countries have a rigid conceptualization of their sovereignty and are not willing to bend at all, then the region will not get anywhere near achieving regional cooperation, according to Tzimitras.

Veering back to Turkey and its own rigid conceptualization of Cyprus’s status, Tzimitras explained that “it is very clear that Turkey formally does not accept the right of the Republic of Cyprus to represent in law or in fact, the whole island.” Turkish law holds that Greek Cypriots cannot conduct explorations for gas on behalf of the entire island, as this is viewed as a violation of Turkish Cypriot rights, he said.

“Because the Cyprus issue has cost Turkey so much financially and politically, it is about time to get something out of it in the sense of hydrocarbons,” he said.

Tzimitras, however, was a bit more positive than Celikpala about the effect that stronger Cypriot-Israeli relations would have on Israel and Turkey’s relationship.

“I don’t think that the undercurrents of Turkish-Israeli relations will suffer beyond that,” Tzimitras told the Post after the conference. “I’m hoping that it’s a temporary setback.”

‘Syria, Iran issues could force J’lem, Ankara back together’

“I don’t think it’s going to affect the deep underlying strategic relationship, especially if developments in Syria go in a way that will create a strategic need for a revamping of the relationship between Israel and Turkey,” he added. “I think that eventually logic will prevail, and they will go back to what they had already. It was working.”

Celikpala, too, said he felt that the regional problems with Syria and Iran might force the two now tense countries back together.

Marveling at the energy finds in the region, INSS director Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin reminisced about studying geography during his childhood.

“One of the maps I do remember is the map of the energy sources,” Yadlin said. “And the energy sources in Middle East were unfortunately concentrated much to the east, to the Gulf area – Iran, Iraq, the UAE.”

“If there are maps like that, I think the good news is that the energy is moving west, to countries that never had this wealth of energy resources,” Yadlin added. “Countries that never understood this gift of gold are starting to cope with a challenge.” Such challenges can have profound political implications on the countries who discover the resources, as well as their neighbors, according to Yadlin.

“Conflicts can erupt around the issue but on the other hand it can bring regional cooperation among countries,” he said.