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The East Mediterranean Triangle
at the Crossroads

Jean-Loup Samaan

The alliance system in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea has significantly evolved over the last years. The rift between Israel and Turkey since 2009 led to new strategic developments. In particular, Israeli-Greek ties have grown in earnest. Authorities in Israel and Greece have signed various trade as well as security cooperation agreements. Furthermore, the discovery of natural gas reserves in the southeastern Mediterranean has prompted cooperation between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece.
This Israel-Greece-Cyprus initiative has logically triggered strong opposition from Turkey, which does not recognize the government in Nicosia and objects to the claims of the Greek Cypriot Administration over the gas reserves in the south of the island. Ankara responded by conducting air and sea military drills close to the area of the planned project, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened that Turkey would take appropriate measures if the three countries were to go on with the project.
As a result, the East Mediterranean Triangle can now be characterized as a volatile regional system in which alliances are no longer stable blocs. This is reflected in the ambivalent games played by the three main actors. Each of them is trying to seek seemingly contradictory goals: Israel wants to restore its ties with Turkey while hedging against Ankara’s policies via a rapprochement with Greece; Greece aims to strengthen its military and commercial relations with Israel, but without openly defying Turkey; Turkey still benefits from Israeli military know-how but expresses strong condemnations of the Netanyahu government, and moreover, it dismisses the Israeli-Greek rapprochement while it uses its Navy in the Mediterranean area as a means of coercive diplomacy against competing forces. All of this generates an odd zero-sum game: every stakeholder claims the rules of this game still apply but bypasses them.
This competition affects the security arrangements in Europe, with the NATO- Middle East partnership being in a deadlock. The natural gas projects brought about disputes over the territorial claims in the area and, in the coming years, without a diplomatic settlement, it could lead to rising naval skirmishes with gunboat diplomacy becoming a norm.
To prevent instability, the U.S. has to navigate between the concerns and the sensitivity of three allies. The core issue of the current troubles in the East Mediterranean Triangle remains the crisis in the Turkish-Israeli relations.