By Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, expert on Israel’s foreign relations, and on the Middle East and former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.
Beyond Elounda, Beersheba, Cairo and Jerusalem: The emerging informal alliance in the eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly significant. Egypt’s role, Erdogan’s ambitions, energy resources, joint military exercises and coordinated emergency responses contribute to the alliance.
The practical utility and moral value of eastern Mediterranean cooperation came into symbolic focus in May. As fires raged in central Israel, the already established quadripartite emergency response procedures were activated, bringing Cypriot, Greek and Croatian firefighting aircraft to participate in the effort. Aircraft came also from Egypt and Italy, and firemen from the Palestinian Authority – proving that the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (in which all three are members, alongside Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Jordan) can be expanded, at times of need, beyond energy cooperation.
Indeed, a significant series of events in recent months has given added momentum to the informal alliance of like-minded nations in the Eastern Mediterranean basin – in geo-strategic, political, economic and energetic terms. This is emerging as important for the future of Israel, potentially transformative in terms of the country’s place in the world, and equally beneficial for her neighbors in the region. Much has been happening:
- In October 2018, the sixth tripartite summit of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus, and President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt took place in the resort town of Elounda, on the isle of Crete. Significantly, it announced the establishment of a permanent secretariat of the trilateral group. It would be permanently based in Nicosia, and would manage the wide range of meetings at various levels, joint projects and evolving non-governmental dialogs.
- In December 2018, it was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s turn to host Tsipras and Anastasiades for their fifth tripartite summit, this time in Be’er Sheva (their previous meeting had been in Nicosia in May 2018, and before that, in Thessaloniki in June 2017). The location was chosen so as to highlight Israel’s claim that the city – capital of Israel’s southern district, the arid Negev – is, or will soon become, “the cyber capital of the world”, a major hub of innovation and high tech, due to the confluence of academic, business and defense-oriented capabilities. In addition to this emphasis on technological and economic cooperation, the Be’er Sheva Summit was also the occasion for announcing the creation of another tripartite secretariat, Greek-Cypriot-Israeli, which like its Egyptian counterpart would work from Nicosia.
- Another dramatic step towards closer regional integration took place in Cairo on 14 January 2019, when the energy ministers of Egypt, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority met to launch the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) . Its mission, as declared there, is “ensuring supply and demand, optimizing resource development, rationalizing the cost of infrastructure, offering competitive prices, and improving trade relations”. While focused on the prospects of energy cooperation, and the benefits of coordinated policies (which have already led both Egypt and Jordan to sign gas agreements with Israeli providers), the like-minded nature of the group, and the regional challenges listed below, open up the possibility that these “3+4” would over time broaden their range of interests and follow the model of the 5+5 forum in the Western Mediterranean.
- One further milestone was reached on 20 March 2019, when the sixth Israeli-Greek-Cypriot tripartite summit was held, again in Israel (in Jerusalem), attended for the first time by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This was overtly designed to indicate that Mediterranean integration has finally won an American stamp of approval. There was an undeniable political dimension to the event, coming less than three weeks before a highly contentious Israeli election. Held way ahead of schedule, and once more in Israel, this was clearly part of Netanyahu’s effort to demonstrate to the Israeli public the remarkable scope of his diplomatic achievements in recent years. At the same time, this political aspect only serves to underline the importance of the emerging alliance, insofar as it has come to be perceived as an electoral asset worth promoting.
- Sadly, the Prime Minister’s claim during the Jerusalem summit that the three countries cooperate on a wide range of issues, from gas pipelines to firefighting, was soon put to the test. In late May 2019, a wave of forest fires once again swept parts of Israel, reminiscent of the deadly Carmel fire of 2010. Activating emergency procedures already in place with Greece, Cyprus and Croatia – Mediterranean countries with a long and tragic experience in such situations – aircraft from all three, as well as helicopters from Egypt and firefighters from the Palestinian Authority, came to Israel’s aid, and played a useful role in containing the fires with no loss of life.
- In parallel, during April and May, Israeli military forces took part in several extensive training activities with Greece and Cyprus. In early April 2019, IAF fighter aircraft joined colleagues from the U.S., Italy, Cyprus and (remarkably) the United Arab Emirates as participants in the major annual exercise of the Hellenic Air Force, “Iniohos 2019”. Through most of month, moreover, Israeli, American and Greek surface vessels and submarines – as well as IAF transport aircraft, helicopters and UAVs – took part in “Noble Dina 2019”, focused upon potential threats (including submarine warfare) to Sea lanes of Communications in the Eastern Mediterranean, combined with search and rescue operations. Activities extended from the Southern Aegean and Cretan seas to the open sea in the Eastern Mediterranean, and were concluded in Haifa harbor. A few weeks later, Israeli F-16 fighters deployed to Cyprus 22-29 May for a joint exercise, coinciding with British RAF F-35s who participated in a pre-scheduled exercise, “Lightening Dawn.
A few days later, Israeli special forces (including Reconnaissance Unit 621, known as “Egoz”, an elite commando force), backed by IAF RPV assets, took part, for the third year running, in training in Cyprus in mountain warfare at relatively high altitudes – rather obviously related to potential combat scenarios on Israel’s northern frontier.
Put together, these developments – indicating the confluence of grand strategy, politics, diplomacy, economics, and military considerations – amount to the emergence of a new regional security architecture, with the two tripartite structures at its core.
Several factors drive this effort (all of them, for the sake of mnemonic elegance, begin with an E – to which list Netanyahu has added an electoral element…):
- Egypt’s importance as the cornerstone of regional stability. Among other things, it is a vital player in the ongoing attempts to manage the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian “ruling factions” in Gaza. As UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladnov has confirmed late in May, Egypt has been central to his “preventive diplomacy” efforts. This is not Egypt’s only claim to growing influence in regional affairs. With an increasingly successful bid to gain indirect control of events in Libya – through the agency of “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, who conferred with Sisi in Cairo in mid-April – Egypt is re-asserting another aspect of what it traditionally saw as its “role” (dawr masr, in Arabic). At this time, given the hostility of Turkey, the crucial economic role of energy resources, and the intensifying interaction with Greece and Cyprus, Egypt’s strategic orientation is increasingly Mediterranean. It thus reflects what the great writer and scholar Taha Hussein recognized already in the 1930s: namely, that Egypt’s past and future alike are bound to those of its Mediterranean neighbors.
- Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and their implications. The IDF (and British) deployments to Cyprus, albeit pre-scheduled long in advance, took place against the latest provocative acts by Turkey – prospecting in the Cypriot EEZ west of Paphos. This is but part of a pattern. Erdogan has repeatedly lashed out at Israel. His agents are trying to stir trouble in Jerusalem (but overall failed to do so during Ramadan this year). He speaks of re-opening the demarcation of the Greek border in the Aegean. Turkey has meddled in Libya, supporting the Sarraj government in Tripoli, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkish military now has bases in Qatar and Sudan. All this requires not only careful monitoring but also projecting a will and capacity to contain Erdoagn’s designs.
- Energy cooperation, writ large. To the list of breakthroughs mentioned above one can presumably add the announcement of a significant potential in the bloc held by Energean in Israel’s EEZ. The indirect talks with Lebanon conducted by U.S. envoy David Satterfield – which Israel announced it would welcome – should also be seen as an attempt to stabilize the Eastern Mediterranean so as to create a safe political environment for potential investors and reduce the high cost (for everyone in the region) of producing under threat. Meanwhile, with Israel now committed to supply a significant part of Jordan’s energy needs; the pipeline to Egypt about to be put to use by Delek Drilling, this time in the opposite direction (selling gas to Egyptian clients); and the construction of a Palestinian power station to be fueled by Israeli gas, the Eastern Mediterranean energy resources are proving to be of great value in stabilizing peace in the region.
- Exercises and other aspects of military cooperation. Israeli participation in military training in Greece and Cyprus, as detailed above, is part of a broader pattern. The recurrent media reports of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in fighting the Islamic State “province” in Sinai (problematic, but not baseless) add to our understanding of the common responses to common security threats. With the rising danger of Islamist terror and subversion – whether driven by Iran; Islamic State and its likes; or the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots – the need for close coordination is clear and urgent.
- Emergency responses, as mentioned above, are now at least partly anchored in formal protocols: and the events of May proved that regional cooperation need not be confined to energy alone. The extension of these protocols to Croatia also serves as a reminder that the Adriatic Sea is in fact an extension of the Eastern Mediterranean, and as such, it offers a strategic link to the Balkans and to eastern and central Europe.
- Economic cooperation: While broad strategic considerations drive the regional realignment, the (long) texts published at the end of each tripartite summits are mostly focused on a wide range of economic and development projects, from high-tech to tourism. Given the sad economic history of some of the partners in recent years, and Israel leading position in fields such as water technologies and cyber, there are good reasons for the Hellenic partners, and others in the Eastern Mediterranean, to expand this partnership further.
- Environmental protection: Given the importance of the Mediterranean Sea itself to the climatic stability, the economy, and the symbolic identity of the nations on its shores, it is not surprising that growing attention is being given at the relevant ministerial and professional levels to cooperation in this field as well: one more reason for Israel and her Hellenic partners (and for Egypt) to ensure that the new Secretariats in Nicosia are well staffed, capable of managing the growing intensity of meetings and common projects at all levels, and moreover, able and willing to talk to each other in a constructive and problem-solving manner.
- European policy: For Israel as well as Sisi’s Egypt, the tripartite dialogs are also a useful check against problematic winds blowing from Brussels. Since high policy decisions in the European system require a general consensus, a close alliance with two members of the EU (or more, if Italy is to be counted) is an important guarantee for both countries against those who seek to impose their own perceptions on the complexities of the Egyptian domestic situation, or on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
To all this one might add aspects of cultural affinity (which will be brought into focus in mid-June 2019 at the “Mediteranne” festival in Israel’s port city of Ashdod, bringing performers from Morocco, Greece and places in between). The renewed interest in Israel in the legacy of Jaqueline Cahanoff, who sought to elevate the “levantine” identity into a possible template for Israel’s future, bridging east and west, is another indicator.
Politics, with tumultuous and divisive events in both Israel and Greece, can get in the way: but they can also add to the momentum, insofar as “photo-ops” of regional partnership prove to be attractive to voters. In any case, all three governments – and other like-minded Mediterranean nations – should rise above their short-term concerns and invest in making the tripartite alliance work.
Published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security: https://jiss.org.il/en/lerman-towards-an-eastern-mediterranean-security-alliance/