Two weeks after court sends Shiite operative to jail over plot to kill Israelis

We can’t designate Hezbollah a terror group, Cypriot minister says

In Times of Israel interview, visiting FM affirms ties with Israel remain solid despite Jerusalem-Ankara detente, but cautions: Turkey always receives but doesn’t reciprocate

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Cypriot Foreign Minister
 Ioannis Kasoulides in Jerusalem, April 9, 2013 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Cypriot Foreign Minister
 Ioannis Kasoulides in Jerusalem, April 9, 2013 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Citing its friendship with Lebanon, Cyprus said it was unwilling to unilaterally declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, despite the fact that a Limassol court sent a member of the Shiite group to prison for his role in a plot to kill Israelis two weeks ago.

However, Cyprus will not block such a designation if the European Union (of which it is a member) accedes to international demands to brand the group a terrorist organization, Cypriot Foreign Minister 
Ioannis Kasoulides told The Times of Israel Tuesday in Jerusalem.

In a far-reaching exclusive interview, the foreign minister also discussed the future stability of bilateral relations, especially in light of the recent rapprochement between Jerusalem and Ankara and Cypriot-Turkish enmity. Turkey invaded and occupied half of the island of Cyprus in 1974 and established the unrecognized state of Northern Cyprus.

“The EU has to take the collective decision [regarding declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization], by which all will have to abide,” Kasoulides said. “Certain individual member states have taken unilateral decisions regarding Hezbollah. I think that everybody must appreciate that Cyprus, being a very small country and very close to the area, is not in a position to take unilateral decisions. But if there are collective decisions by the EU we will abide by them.”

Israel, the US, the UK and other states, including Egypt and Bahrain, have added the Shiite group to their lists of terrorist organizations, but the EU has so far refused to do so. Officially labeling Hezbollah a terrorist entity would significantly hamper its ability to operate. But doing so requires unanimity among the EU’s 27 member states, which until now has not been achieved, mainly because of French objections.

However, since a Bulgarian police investigation earlier this year blamed Hezbollah for a July 18, 2012, terrorist attack in Burgas that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, calls have grown louder for the union to rethink its stance. Such demands further intensified after a Cypriot court convicted and sentenced to four years in prison Hezbollah operative Hossam Taleb Yaacoub for a plot to attack Israeli tourists in the Mediterranean island nation.

Yaacoub, who holds Lebanese and Swedish passports, was arrested in the summer of 2012 on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack against Israeli visitors. During the trial, he acknowledged membership in Hezbollah and admitted to having staked out areas frequented by Israelis, but claimed he did not know his work was part of a plot to kill them.

His crimes “potentially put in danger the safety of Israeli citizens as well as targets on the territory of the Republic of Cyprus,” the judges declared.

“The Cypriot court’s decision,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry stated after the verdict was announced in Limassol, “in conjunction with the results of the Bulgarian investigation of the Burgas attack, create a clear picture of Hezbollah’s penetration into European Union states in an attempt to carry out terror attacks against Israeli targets on European soil.” Jerusalem repeated its calls on the EU to label the group a terrorist organization, and diplomats from several member states said that the findings in Cyprus and Bulgaria increased the likelihood of that happening.

Kasoulides on Tuesday pledged to “go along with the consensus, if there is one,” yet resolutely refused to make a unilateral statement on behalf of his government. While the UK and the Netherlands have taken that step in absence of a unanimous EU decision, these are “two big countries, and far away,” he argued.

‘Cyprus has already done a lot on this issue. The next step is up to Brussels, not to Cyprus’

As the main reason for Nicosia’s refusal to blacklist Hezbollah, Kasoulides cited his country’s close ties with Lebanon. “On several occasions, when there were civil wars or other forms of war in Lebanon, we were hosting many Lebanese in Cyprus,” he said. “Whatever happens — considerations regarding law and order or whatever — we need to preserve our friendship with this country. Because we sympathize also with them, and the fact that they had so many times been the victims of extraneous conflicts that had nothing to do with them. We also have this in mind.”

The fact that a Cypriot court convicted one Hezbollah operative for preparing a terrorist act alone is not enough to proclaim the group a terrorist entity, Kasoulides argued. “There was an indisputable fact that has taken place in the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, adjudicated by the justice system of Cyprus. But it is obvious that it was one event only — that’s the only evidence we’ve got.”

The EU will collect additional information about other alleged Hezbollah activity and eventually arrive at a conclusion, he added. “It’s far easier for the EU to make such a decision, other than an individual decision taken by Cyprus based on the one event that has taken place in its territory.”

Cyprus has already “done a lot on this issue,” he added. “The next step is up to Brussels, not to Cyprus.”

Kasoulides, who was appointed foreign minister in Cyprus’s new center-right government earlier this year after having already served in that position from 1997 until 2003, visited Israel Tuesday together with Energy, Commerce, Industry and Tourism Minister Giorgos Lakkotrypis.

The visit made headlines in Israel because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his meeting with the Cypriot dignitaries due to his talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Jerusalem at the same time. The Cypriot ministers were initially offered an opportunity to meet with International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz instead, but Kasoulides and Lakkotrypis refused. The Prime Minister’s Office eventually rescheduled and a meeting with Netanyahu was held later on Tuesday.

PM Netanyahu with Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides (C) and Energy and Commerce Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis, April 09, 2013. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
PM Netanyahu with Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides (C) and Energy and Commerce Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis, April 09, 2013. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

While PMO officials Wednesday said the meeting was “good,” without providing any details about its content, Israeli media called it a “diplomatic incident,” noting that bilateral ties are currently extremely delicate, especially since Jerusalem’s recent détente with Ankara and the new light that could shine on regional energy cooperation.

But Kasoulides, who spoke with The Times of Israel before meeting the prime minister, said that Nicosia’s friendship to Israel was guaranteed regardless of Jerusalem’s ties to other countries.

“Despite the differences that we have with Turkey — and we have many, and there is a lack of trust from Cyprus to Turkey and vice versa — we have never seen the relations of Turkey with other countries, and in this case Israel, as a zero sum game regarding Cyprus,” he said. “We are not in this kind of antagonism or competition. In this modern world, the position that the friend of your enemy is not your friend anymore does not apply.”

The Cypriot government “very much” appreciated that Netanyahu called President Nicos Anastasiades immediately after last month’s apology to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which clashes between pro-Palestinian activists and IDF troops aboard the Mavi Marmara ship resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. On March 22, Netanyahu apologized for “operational mistakes” and pledged to compensate the families of those killed. In turn, Erdoğan agreed to restore full diplomatic ties with Israel.

But since then, Ankara has dragged its feet and not taken the hoped-for steps to normalize relations, leading some Israeli analysts to call Netanyahu’s move — urged by the US, and carried out in the final minutes of President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel — a grave error. While Kasoulides declined to opine on whether the apology was a good or bad move, he expressed skepticism about the Turkish government’s true intentions.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

“It’s the Mavi Marmara issue that has been resolved between Israel and Turkey. What would be the declared policy of Turkey to try and play a sort of leader of the Muslim world, that’s a different story and remains to be seen,” he said, referring to the Turkish leader’s alleged quest for regional hegemony. It is difficult to believe that relations “can improve so dramatically a few days after Prime Minister Erdoğan has equated Zionism to fascism, for instance. But it’s not up to me to foment this kind of discord between Israel and Turkey,” Kasoulides said.

Cyprus knows from experience that “Turkey is always in the habit to receive but not to be able to reciprocate,” he added. “This happens in the case of the relations between Cyprus and Turkey so I cannot tell how things will develop between Turkey and Israel. It is a good thing for somebody to be cautious and see.”

Turkish-Israeli détente — an energy game-changer?

Analysts of regional energy policies have also pointed out that an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation would be a game-changer in that Jerusalem could choose to partner with Ankara rather than with Nicosia in exporting the country’s natural gas. “It is possible that a cooperation in energy between Turkey and Israel would follow an anticipated rapprochement,” Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said this week.

Kasoulides said Cyprus was very interested in energy partnerships with Israel — indeed, it was the main reason for this visit, he said — yet he allowed that his country has no right to claim a monopoly of such cooperation.

Netanyahu, in his March phone call to President Anastasiades, said the détente with Turkey “would not affect in any way the relations between Israel and Cyprus, and in particular the relations in the energy sector,” Kasoulides said. “That was the content of the conversation, that was the purpose of the conversation.”

The PMO confirmed that Netanyahu called Anastasiades and vowed to “continue to expand bilateral relations,” but refused to provide additional details regarding the conversation.

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