Netanyahu heads to Cyprus to build Mediterranean ties

Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu

The Israeli Prime Minister has begun a visit to Cyprus in a move that suggests Israel's cool relationship with Turkey is likely to continue.

Although it is located just 165 miles from Israel's Mediterranean coast, Cyprus has not been a key ally in the past and Nicosia has publicly supported the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu's visit, which follows several reciprocal ones by Israel and Cypriot officials, marks the first time that an Israeli Prime Minister has visited the island.

But while historically Israel's warm relationship with Turkey meant that Cyprus – which A n kara does not recognise as an independent state - viewed the Jewish state with suspicion, the last few years have changed the situation. After the clash on the flotilla, in which Turkish pro-Palestinian activists were killed, the two countries' ties deteriorated

Last year Ankara downgraded diplomatic ties and cancelled all commercial and military agreements between the two countries, and in December Israel's Knesset debated giving official recognition to the Armenian genocide, which Turkey has long refused to acknowledge.

Mr Netanyahu's office said the visit "was designed to strengthen the improving ties between the two nations." His sentiments were echoed by a spokesman for the Cypriot government, Stefanos Stefanou, who said it "illustrated the great dynamic driving forward the improvement in relations between the two countries."

Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey, suggested that while "the loss of Turkey pushed Israel in the direction of Greece and Cyprus", the island had become more significant because of the discovery of offshore natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea. The find is the subject of a dispute with Turkey.

But Mr Liel also warned that if Israel cemented a relationship with Cyprus, it would make Turkey likely to "want to aid Hamas".

"The Turks feel that if Israel is going toward Cyprus they will try to strengthen Hamas," he said.

Last updated: 12:50pm, February 16 2012