Israel backs Cyprus as Turkey moves gas drill into its waters

‘Friends should stick with each other,’ ambassador in Nicosia says; Israeli firm Delek among the energy companies operating off country’s coast

Journalists walk next to the drilling ship 'Yavuz' scheduled to search for oil and gas off Cyprus, at the port of Dilovasi, outside Istanbul, on June 20, 2019. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)
Journalists walk next to the drilling ship 'Yavuz' scheduled to search for oil and gas off Cyprus, at the port of Dilovasi, outside Istanbul, on June 20, 2019. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Israel’s envoy to Cyprus on Monday expressed backing for the Mediterranean island state after Turkey moved a gas drilling rig into Cypriot waters last week.

“Friends should stick with each other,” Ambassador Sammy Revel tweeted.

He added that Israel is “following closely and with concern” the Turkish move.

Revel’s comments come after Cyprus lashed out at Turkey’s new attempt to drill for gas in Cypriot waters where European energy companies are already licensed to conduct a search, calling it a “severe escalation” and vowing to fight the move.

Israel and Turkey, once close allies, have had increasingly strained relations since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the country’s leader. Erdogan is a staunch supporter of the Palestinians and launches frequent verbal attacks on the Jewish state.

Israel also voiced support for Cyprus in July over Turkish operations in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Israel, Cyprus and Greece have forged an energy-based partnership that has steadily grown following the discovery of gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. The United States began joining the talks earlier this year.

Last year, the countries agreed on building a pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, promising to reshape the region as an energy provider and dent Russia’s dominance over the European energy market. It also could curtail Iranian ambitions to use Syria as a gateway to the eastern Mediterranean.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, right, and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades attend the 5th Israel-Greece-Cyprus summit, to sign trilateral agreements in cyber and innovation, in Beersheba, Israel, December 20, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The proposed pipeline would allow Israel and Cyprus to export their recently discovered offshore reserves to Italy and eventually to the rest of Europe. Greece, which would act as a conduit for the gas to the continent, could also use the pipeline to convey any hydrocarbons potentially found in its own waters.

In a strongly worded statement, the Cypriot government on Friday denounced the arrival of the Turkish drillship Yavuz in an area licensed to France’s Total and Italy’s Eni as “utterly provocative and aggressive behavior,” in defiance of international calls to respect the east Mediterranean island nation’s sovereign rights.

It said the Turkish government is putting regional stability and security at risk by choosing to “irreversibly depart from international legality,” adding it would not yield to “threats and bullying tactics” of a bygone era.

“Illegality, no matter how often it’s repeated, does not generate law,” the Cypriot government said, adding that it would step up its legal and diplomatic fight, especially within the European Union.

Eni and Total have teamed up to expand their oil and gas search off Cyprus and currently hold licenses for seven of Cyprus’ 13 blocks inside the island’s economic zone.

Other licensed companies include ExxonMobil and Texas-based Noble Energy along with partners Shell and Israel’s Delek.

Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and claims some 44% of the island’s exclusive economic zone as its own, saying it’s acting to protect its interests and those of breakaway Turkish Cypriots.

In this photo from July 9, 2019, a Turkish Navy warship patrols near Turkey’s drilling ship “Fatih” as it makes its way towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus. (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

The EU has already imposed sanctions against Turkey for earlier drilling activities in waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights but that aren’t licensed out to energy companies. The Yavuz is the second warship-escorted drillship that Turkey has dispatched to drill off Cyprus, joining the Fatih and other research vessels.

The Cypriot government has issued international arrest warrants against top executives from energy companies assisting the Turkish drillships.

The Yavuz has sailed into an area some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the town of Paphos on Cyprus’ southwestern coast, which is licensed to Eni and Total but which Turkey claims partly falls within its own continental shelf.

Cyprus was split along ethnic lines following a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a coup aiming at union with Greece. Although the island joined the EU in 2004, only the southern, internationally recognized part enjoys full membership benefits.

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