NICOSIA – Any bid by Israel to improve strained ties with Turkey won’t come at the expense of its “strategic relationship” with neighboring Cyprus, the Israeli president said Wednesday.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, speaking after talks with his Cypriot counterpart, said he’s aware next week’s visit to Turkey has touched a raw nerve in ethnically-split Cyprus, which accuses Ankara of trying to place the entire island under its control.
Herzog told Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades that “nothing in my visit and what would ensue will be on the account of this strategic relationship with your country.”
He said Israel seeks to strengthen relations and pursue dialogue with all nations and all faiths, including Turkey that he called “a very important neighbor of ours, which has a “huge impact on our lives in many fields.”
“We have to...if possible to lower the tension and move on in a true dialogue that would definitely include issues of climate and the economy,” said Herzog.
Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aiming at union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot breakaway north where it keeps more than 35,000 troops. Numerous rounds of peace talks over nearly five decades have failed to reunify the island.
Herzog’s visit to Turkey comes as the two countries try to mend once close relations that frayed under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Israel has been angered by Erdogan’s embrace of the militant group Hamas that controls the Gaza strip.
Both countries pulled their ambassadors after the death of nine Turkish activists in 2010 when Israeli commandos stormed a ship trying to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza to deliver humanitarian aid. In 2018, Turkey again recalled its ambassador to Israel following the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem.
Herzog said he would convey to Erdogan a message of “collaboration between peoples and all faiths for the well-being of humanity.”
Cypriot-Israeli ties blossomed over the last decade following sizeable natural gas deposits in east Mediterranean waters. The two countries have joined with Greece to look for ways to build on that energy-based cooperation, including joint projects to harness the region’s gas potential.
One such project is a pipeline to convey Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe via Greece. Although some have cast doubt on whether the project is economically viable and environmentally sound, Anastasiades said it could still be an option for allow Europe to diversify away from Russian gas.
Turkey doesn't recognize the island's Greek Cypriot-dominated government, decries it's “unilateral" gas search because it says that ignores Turkish Cypriot rights to potential mineral wealth and claims much of Cyprus' exclusive economic zone as its own.
Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.