Israel fails to woo Cyprus on West Bank annexation
Having realised US support is not enough to do what it wants, Israel seeks to court Cyprus into swaying EU opinion on its plans to annex the West Bank.
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Israel has failed to meet its own July 1st deadline to start annexing parts of the occupied West Bank and Jordan Valley. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the self-styled Jewish State, had promised to deliver on the annexation plan as part of his re-election campaign earlier this year. Having failed to reach a majority in the Israeli parliament, his right-wing Likud party looked set to be sidelined by the leftist Blue and White bloc, led by his election rival Benny Gantz. Had Gantz accepted a coalition with Netanyahu’s arch enemy, ultra-nationalist secularist Avigdor Lieberman, both Netanyahu and his annexation plan would have been put to bed. However, Gantz instead accepted to become Netanyahu’s sidekick in a grand coalition which would see his Blue and White bloc take control of Israel’s judiciary and defence ministry, as well as implement a rotational leadership. Suddenly Netanyahu, who currently faces charges for corruption, unexpectedly found himself in a position to follow up on his promises.
But it hasn’t been that simple for Netanyahu. He may have got a nod and a wink from the Trump administration in the US, but the fact is that even many Israelis are against the plan, as they fear it might trigger a Palestinian uprising. Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has said annexation would be received as a declaration of war. Neighbouring state Jordan has also expressed alarm at the plan. In fact, the Arab world in general stands against it, and a number of Arab countries have warned that any attempts to annex Palestinian land would jepoardise any possible normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, has also urged Israel to abandon its plan, warning the move would torpedo future peace efforts. Meanwhile in the European Union, over 1,000 MEPs have signed a letter against it. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has also said annexation may have “significant consequences for the close relationship” between Israel and the EU.
Despite missing its own deadline, Israel still insists it will proceed with the annexation in July, but it seems to be waiting to get greater support from its main backer, the US, first of all, as well as a wider approval from Europe. Nine EU countries actually recognise Palestine as a state, so even those that don’t recognise Palestine largely oppose annexation for the sake of not complicating relations with those that do. Funnily enough however, some EU states that recognise Palestine are actually among Israel’s closest allies in the bloc, such as Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia — or the Visegrad Group. These countries recognised Palestine in 1988 when they were still under communist rule, but today under far-right leadership, they have aligned themselves with Israel. Yet when it comes to the issue of annexation, Israel has failed to make inroads with more liberal and influential western European countries. This is where Cyprus comes in.
The Republic of Cyprus enjoys good relations with Israel. Cyprus does recognise Palestine, but also works closely with Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel has been one of Cyprus’ most trusted allies when it comes to dealing with Turkey. In return, Cyprus has long served as a sympathiser to Israeli interests within the EU. Cyprus, also known to be a more moderate country that stays away from political extremes, unlike its eastern European counterparts, also has strong ties with western European nations such as France, Germany and Italy. Israel therefore seeks to use Cyprus as a moderating voice in discourse with European countries, as Israel’s foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi stated to his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides during the latter’s visit to Israel in June. Cyprus owes Israel this favour for Israel’s support and cooperation on joint security and energy projects in the region, as well as diplomatic efforts to keep Turkey out of Cypriot affairs.
As small as Cyprus is, thanks to its strategic geographical location on Europe’s frontline with the Middle East, it carries significant political leverage. It is Europe’s gateway to the Middle East. But Israel may be overestimating Cyprus’ ability to influence other EU countries. First of all, there is strong opposition to the Israeli annexation within Cyprus, predominantly coming from the Greek Cypriot leftist AKEL party. Secondly, Cypriot support for the plan to annex the occupied West Bank would be hypocritical on its behalf, considering that the northern part of Cyprus is under what Greek Cypriots call a “Turkish occupation”. Turkey opposes the Israeli plan, so Cyprus’ support for Israel in this matter could later be used as an excuse by Turkey to bring up its own annexation agenda in northern Cyprus. Neither Cyprus, nor its closest ally Greece, is prepared to go down that route with Turkey any time soon, especially with the lack of European resolve to engage Turkey militarily. Thirdly, as much as Cyprus is a key member of the EU, we must not forget that the island is a former British colony and still hosts two sovereign British bases. Britain is no longer in the EU and would therefore want to consolidate its soft power in Cyprus where EU influence tends to rival its own. Britain wishes to maintain good ties with Turkey and Arab nations in the Middle East, and does not want to encourage any scenario that may result in a regional conflict that will threaten its national interests. Furthermore, Cyprus is not a member of NATO and therefore does not share that extra level of cooperation with EU nations that are.
Nonetheless, Cyprus seems unlikely to fulfill Israel’s request. It probably couldn’t even if it wanted to. Of course, Israel knows that already. The fact that Israel has to rely on Cyprus to win the EU’s favour in itself is an act of hopeless desperation. It has become clear to Israel that US support is not enough to be able to do what it wants, and perhaps it has already reached the full extent of its power.
The promise of annexation worked wonders in helping Netanyahu come first in the elections, albeit finishing short of a majority. This tactic helped him retain the right-wing vote in Israel, just as support for annexation will help US President Donald Trump gain the favour of the Jewish lobby in America in upcoming elections there. But perhaps even Netanyahu himself didn’t half expect to be put on the spot regarding this promise. When offering support for annexation as a concession in coalition talks, Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz most likely did so knowing that the Israeli prime minister would not be able to fulfill it. Yet, having come this far, Israeli officials are indicating that the plan is still on. It would be embarrassing for Israel to back out now. But with virtually no international support, and even US backing still in question, Israel risks taking one step too far and triggering a backlash that will put its very existence under threat.
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