ISTANBUL - Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders are set to sit down Wednesday to once again seek to resolve the nearly five-decade-long division of the island. The success of the talks now carries with it potentially far reaching energy implications for the region, involving Turkey, Israel and the European Union.
Israel and Turkey are in talks to develop a major pipeline that would exploit the massive Leviathan gas reserves discovered off the Israel coast.
“The best possible exploitation of the Israeli offshore facility would be through Turkey and its transfer to European Union, which would enhance the energy security of the European Union,” pointed out retired Turkish ambassador Unal Cevikoz, now head of the think tank Ankara Policy Center. The EU has long been looking to diversify its dependance on Russian gas.
The catch is that such a pipeline from Israel to Turkey would have to pass through Cyprus or Cypriot waters. “It's only possible if Cyprus is also added into this equation, it has to become an Israel-Turkey-Cyprus trilateral cooperation. Now as long as the Cypriot problem is pending, unresolved, then it remains a big question whether we can proceed (with the pipeline) in that sense,” said Cevikoz.
Regional energy hub
The Israel gas pipeline is part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's strategic goal of turning Turkey into a regional energy hub. Along with obvious financial gains from transit fees, it would enhance Turkey as a powerful energy player in the region.
Turkish Energy minister Berat Albayrak was reported in Turkish media saying he communicated via WhatsApp nearly everyday with senior Israel energy officials about the project. The pipeline is potentially the most important fruit of a rapprochement efforts between the countries since a collapse in relations after Israeli commandos killed nine Turks seeking to break Israel's sea blockade in 2010.
“The pipeline for gas to Turkey is an export opportunity for Israel. Israeli gas could be in Turkey within two to three years,” predicted Israel's General Director of National Infrastructure, Energy & Water Ministry Shaul Meridor, speaking in April this year at the Atlantic Council Istanbul Summit.
The incentives from taking a giant leap toward its energy hub aspirations has led to growing speculation that Ankara could be prepared to make major concessions in the latest Cypriot reunification talks. Turkey, along with Greece and the United Kingdom, are guarantor powers for the island. Turkey's large military presence on the island remains a key obstacle to unification efforts.
“There is a climate that people are a little more positive vis-a-vis Cyprus than they were in the past,” observed Al Monitor columnist Semih Idiz. He remains skeptical, however, that energy interests can provide sufficient impetus for a breakthrough.
“Personally having followed this (Cyprus unification efforts) for 40 years, I am not optimistic,” said Idiz. “I think they (gas pipelines) are very important, I think Ankara is eyeing those. But I don't think you will get any government in Turkey to conceding on Turkey's traditional and strategic interests in Cyprus for the sake of energy interests. Cyprus is a nationalist cause."
Indeed, Erdogan is increasingly courting Turkish nationalist voters ahead of presidential elections in 2019. Israel appears to be making contingency plans. In April it signed a preliminary deal with the Greek Cypriot and Italian governments to construct a pipeline to transport Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.
But an Israel-Greece-Italy pipeline is predicted to be the longest, most expensive and challenging of its kind.
U.S. has role
“To try build a pipeline though the Mediterranean, to Greece and to the Italian market, is very expensive and not commercially viable, it won’t work,” said Mithat Rende, a retired Turkish ambassador and an expert on Eastern Mediterranean energy.
Rende points out that with a U.S. company involved in developing the Israel gas field, since Washington has an incentive to use its muscle to make a breakthrough and to help shore up the strategic gain of cementing ties between key regional allies Turkey and Israel, "there will be no need for the consent of the Greek Cypriots."
The Greek Cypriot government is the only internationally recognized administration on the island that likely would contest any pipeline using Cypriot waters without its consent, resulting in lengthy international litigation — a prospect any pipeline constructor would be keen to avoid. Ankara's pipeline aspirations seem destined to be tied to the success of the latest U.N.-sponsored efforts to reunite the divided island.