For the first time, a senior official from Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus visited Israel this week, calling for better political relations and economic ties between North Nicosia and Ankara on the one side and Israel on the other.
“I’m confident that the relations [between Israel and Turkey] will get better. It’s a matter of time,” said Özdil Nami, the foreign minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a self-styled country not recognized by any state other than Turkey. “There is an important trade volume that exists between Israel and Turkey, and we just hope that better relations between Northern Cyprus and Israel can also facilitate that process.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Nami said he would be very pleased if his visit were to have even a small impact on the efforts to repair frosty relations between Turkey and Israel. “Clearly, one can see that Turkish Cypriots coordinate all their steps with Ankara. Therefore, my visit to Tel Aviv should be seen in that perspective.”
Indeed, some saw in Nami’s visit — which was entirely private in nature — a sign of a possible détente between Turkey and Israel.
“Just last week a senior official in Ankara was quoted as saying that Turkey is ready to normalize relations with Israel. The visit of this senior Cypriot-Turkish official is another sign of possible Turkish flexibility regarding Israel, after a summer filled with negative declarations and tensions,” said Nimrod Goren, the chairman of Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, a left-leaning think tank.
Since Jerusalem does not recognize the TRNC, Nami was not welcomed by any government officials. He visited Israel as a guest of an energy conference — the Israel Energy and Business Convention 2014 in Tel Aviv — where he was one of the keynote speakers. “It was a successful get-together in which we discussed hydrocarbon issues here in the region, in particular how it affects the Cyprus issue,” he said.
Goren sees in the natural gas issue an area of possibly fruitful regional cooperation: “It is no coincidence that this extraordinary visit became possible in the context of the topic of natural gas — a topic that opens before Israel new possibilities regarding its relations with its neighbors in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin.”
But not everyone is happy about Nami’s visit to Israel. The head of a an energy company who also participated in the Tel Aviv conference protested his participation: Toula Onoufriou, the president of Cyprus Hydrocarbons Company, said she was “shocked” by the involvement of “a so-called official from a pseudo state, which is the result of the continuous occupation and invasion of Cyprus by Turkey.”
Nami’s participation, which was not announced on the conference’s program, was unacceptable and against the spirit of collaboration that has developed between Cyprus and Israel, Onoufriou said, according to the Cyprus Mail. “Contrary to what you have heard, all the civilized nations of the international community have condemned Turkey for its illegal actions in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone,” she told the delegates.
During his remarks, Nami had demanded that hydrocarbons off the shore of Cyprus must benefit all Cypriots, including those in the Turkish North.
“We encourage Israel in its decision-making to respect the rights and privileges of Turkish Cypriots as well,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, immediately after the conference concluded. “We believe that with such an inclusive agenda energy resources can be a facilitator of peace and reconciliation, which is greatly needed in this region.”
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman visited Cyprus this week, where he said the country’s right to drill for gas and oil must be respected by everyone, including Turkey.
Referring to a Turkish vessel that last month entered Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone off the island’s southern coast, Liberman said it would be “extremely unnecessary” to provoke more conflicts in an already tense region. He made the comments after a meeting with his Cypriot counterpart, Ioannis Kasoulideshe.
Since relations between Jerusalem and Ankara have gone sour in recent years, Israel has been keen to improve cooperation with Cyprus, especially in the energy sector.