"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A diplomatic bind not of our own making… for a change

This appeared on March 11, 2008 on the Haaretz website. See url below

It is not too often Israel’s Foreign Ministry officials receive protestations for something not related to the Palestinians or the Arab-Israeli conflict at large. One could almost imagine a rather comical embarrassment when the Cypriot ambassador to Israel dropped in yesterday to complain about plans by the Turkish Cypriots to set up an economic interests office in Tel Aviv. Ambassador George Zodiates, normally a mild mannered man, held nothing back, drawing an analogy between the breakaway republic of Northern Cyprus and Hamas, asking how Israel would react if the radical Palestinian Islamic group sought to set up an office representing its interests in third countries.

So, what is this all about, and how will it affect the normally cordial and smooth relations between Israel and Cyprus? Like any good story, there are at least three sides to it. Israel had known for some time of plans by the Turkish Cypriots, mainly through Turkey, to try and establish some form of mission in Tel Aviv. Israel rejected out of hand any notion that such representation would have a diplomatic character, insisting that Jerusalem “operates in accordance with the decisions of the United Nations’ which does not recognize Northern Cyprus as an independent state. That is not to say that there have not been voices in the Israeli establishment calling for such recognition in order to curry favor with Ankara. Not surprisingly those suggesting this are primarily from the defense establishment, who are not exactly well known for grasping diplomatic nuances and international law.

Understanding the problem facing many countries unwilling to break with international law, the Turkish Cypriots and their advisers in Ankara opted for the trade office scenario. It is less threatening and hard to oppose legally. It does not necessitate diplomatic recognition yet its activities constitute what is essentially 75% of the work of any average diplomatic mission in Israel: public relations, trade, cultural exchanges, spreading the word that a state exists. As such, arguing, as one unnamed source quoted Sunday in Barak Ravid’s report, that this is not an attempt at “politics through the back door” is disingenuous. That is precisely what it is and that is the purpose of a broader onslaught of such offices Turkish Cypriots have sought to establish in key capitals the world over, most recently in Rome. No Israeli investor really needs a trade office in Tel Aviv to learn about options in northern Cyprus: anyone who has not already heard that there are real estate finds in northern Cyprus, with questionable ownership documents, can’t afford them anyway.

As for the Greek Cypriots, their angst over this stems from one basic fact: the sovereignty of Cyprus is all they have in a geopolitical environment where they are otherwise defenseless. Indeed, the Greek Cypriots are holding on to their internationally recognized status like a lifeline that protects their very existence. Any breach to that sovereignty, beyond that already suffered in 1974, when foreign intervention toppled the legitimate government, usurped their upper hand in inter-communal relations, and ushered in Turkish troops who continue to maintain their hold over northern Cyprus, is perceived by them to be tantamount to extinction. This is not automatically understood by visitors to Cyprus – certainly not since the spring 2003, when the Turkish army began lifting restrictions to freedom of movement by Greeks to the north. The complex status of Cyprus, its Greek and Turkish communities, the role of ‘mother’ countries Greece and Turkey, as well as that of Britain, the European Union and the international community, are beyond this discussion. But understanding what sovereignty means to the Greek Cypriots, and by extension to the Turkish Cypriots, is the beginning to appreciating the current state of the conflict on the island – which some Israelis have dubbed ‘virtual’ because it has, fortunately, been primarily non-violent for the past three decades.

Israel is in a bind and there are plenty of people at the Foreign Ministry who realize that this is something that will not go away soon. It is not the Greek Cypriots who they are worried about, but the list of others who may follow in the Turkish Cypriot footsteps, causing diplomatic headaches with more powerful neighbors and allies than Cyprus can ever be. The Kosovar Albanians may choose the option of a trade office – even though Israel has not extended diplomatic recognition to their fledgling statelet, drawing Serbian ire, and very likely that of their Russian patrons. Or, it could be the Kurds from northern Iraq, who may want to cash in on decades of cooperation with Israel, by breaking ground on a future diplomatic mission through the establishment of a trade office in Tel Aviv. I am sure Ankara will love that.

Michalis Firillas
March 11, 2008


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