Turkish Cypriot FM sees bright future for Israel relations

Turkish Cypriot FM sees bright future for Israel relations

Ozdil Nami visits DC to raise support for Cyprus unification, believes natural gas is key for regional interdependence

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Ozdil Nami, left, pictured in Nicosia. (photo credit: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
Ozdil Nami, left, pictured in Nicosia. (photo credit: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

WASHINGTON — With a framework for a comprehensive peace agreement in hand and dreams of a central role in providing natural gas to Europe, Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Ozdil Nami visited Washington, DC, this week. Nami hopes that his small island, which has known its share of conflict in recent decades, can have a pivotal role in establishing regional ties, bringing Turkey and Israel together in a common economic partnership.

Nami believes that “the Cyprus issue holds the key to many developments including closer cooperation between Israel and Turkey, between Turkey and the European Union, and in the problem-free exploitation of hydrocarbon resources.” Although he was wary about discussing the exact implications of Russian involvement in Ukraine, Nami emphasized repeatedly during a Tuesday afternoon meeting that natural gas was pivotal to unlocking Cyprus’s regional potential.

Nami described a scenario in which Cyprus could serve as a point of entry for Israeli natural gas, which could be piped to Turkey and then distributed to European Union member states through existing infrastructure. Such a plan, he said, would cost approximately $1 billion. And it would provide Europe with an alternate source of natural gas to the current supply, which is imported from Russia, and, in his words, create a positive “interdependence” between Turkey and Israel.

Israel does not recognize the existence of the Turkish-oriented state that Nami represents, but maintains close relations with Greek Cyprus. Although relations in previous decades between Cyprus and Israel were frosty due to Israel’s defense ties with the secularist Turkish regime, relations with Greek Cyprus improved steadily as relations with Turkey declined under increasing Islamist influence in Ankara.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment for this report.

In the past few years, relations between Israel and the Greek side of the island have strengthened around the prospect of mutual collaboration on significant offshore natural gas reservoirs in the eastern Mediterranean. The possible exploitation of these reserves has, however, further increased tensions between Greek Cyprus and Israel on one side, and Turkey on the other.

Turkey has complained on behalf of Turkish Cypriots that such deals with Israel constitute unilateral exploitation of resources that should be used to benefit Turkish Cypriots as well.

Israel and Greek Cyprus have also planned to cooperate on the construction of a massive underwater electrical cable that will link both Greek Cyprus and Israel to the European power grid.

The American-educated foreign minister will also meet with a number of Jewish groups during his visit to Washington. He is quick to point out that natural gas is far from the only way in which Israel and a future unified Cyprus could be tied.

Israeli investors, he noted, are already operating on both sides of Cyprus’s Green Line that separates the Greek south from the Turkish north. Cyprus is popular with Israeli developers and tourists alike, and the newly facilitated open access between the north and the south makes the climate more hospitable for visitors and investors.

Nami represents the Social Democratic party, which is the senior coalition partner in a government that also includes Turkish Cyprus’s center-right party. He came to Washington to drum up interest for the Cypriot talks among American officials.

“There is a heightened interest in Cyprus talks,” he says with a smile. “We want to encourage, as Turkish Cypriots, more attention at higher levels.”

Although a meeting with his American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, remained elusive, Nami did meet with State Department and National Security Council officials, as well as with members of Congress.

Nami says that after the 2004 failure of the US-supported Annan Plan, world powers had backed away from taking active interest in the resolution of tensions between Greek and Turkish Cyprus. Turkey moved troops into northern Cyprus in 1974 after a coup d’etat in the independent Republic of Cyprus attempted to merge the island nation with mainland Greece.

Turkey said that it was safeguarding the rights of the Turkish Muslim minority on the island, which in turn unilaterally declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In the framework of attempts to reach an internationally brokered solution, UN peacekeepers are stationed along the Green Line separating the Turkish north from the Greek south.

The UN plan that collapsed in 2004 was strongly supported by Turkish Cypriots and resoundingly rejected by Greek Cypriots. Nami noted that despite Turkish Cypriots’ support for international-brokered resolutions to the territorial disputes, his country is only recognized by Turkey and is seen by the rest of the world as an illegitimate occupation. “Turkish Cypriots got the short end of the stick,” Nami complains. “We are kept in isolation from the EU, and are unable to trade freely.”

Nami is a veteran member of negotiations teams to try to reach a comprehensive agreement for the eastern Mediterranean island. This time, he is optimistic. “The leaders have agreed upon a framework for a comprehensive agreement,” he explains. “It is quite different from previous texts that only talked about a settlement in general terms. This one goes into specifics.”

An agreement on Cyprus, Nami says, will do more than just unify the eastern Mediterranean island. He continues that the division of Cyprus stood at the center of Turkey’s failure to be admitted to the European Union — and, thus, resolving the Cypriot conflict could facilitate a Turkish reorientation toward Europe and away from the factional politics of the Middle East.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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