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Cyprus, Israel move closer on East Med gas

NICOSIA, Cyprus, Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The governments of Cyprus and Israel, which both have seemingly intractable problems with Turkey, are moving closer together over the increasingly thorny issue of vast natural gas fields under the eastern Mediterranean.

The energy dispute, which already has Israel and neighboring Lebanon threatening each other, has spurred a major geopolitical realignment in the region where oil and natural gas have long been in short supply and heightened tensions.

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The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that more than 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and around 4 billion barrels of oil lie under the continental shelf that runs south from Syria and Lebanon before curving westward to Egypt.

So it's no surprise that in such a volatile region the competition over such potentially vast energy reserves just keeps growing, fueled by political quarrels that have beset the region for decades, if not centuries.

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Israel, still at war with its Arab neighbors, has been at odds with Turkey, its onetime strategic ally which now solidly supports the Palestinians.

The split occurred May 31, 2010, when Israeli forces killed nine Turks while intercepting a Turkish-organized aid flotilla heading for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

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Cyprus has historically been a point of conflict between ancient enemies Greece and Turkey. The island has been divided since Turkey invaded in 1974 and seized the northern sector. The Turkish-Cypriot republic it declared is recognized only by Ankara. The government of the Greek Cypriot south in Nicosia is recognized internationally.

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The emerging Cyprus-Israel relationship took a significant step forward this week when Cyprus' new foreign minister, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, visited Israel and had two days of talks on the gas issue.

Cyprus recently signed a zoning agreement on maritime exploration with Israel and is about to launch deep-water exploration off its southern coast.

Turkey claims the Nicosia government doesn't have the right to unilaterally exploit the island's natural resources.

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Ankara's current drive to become a major regional power and regain its Ottoman legacy in the Muslim Middle East has fueled its disputes with Israel and Greece.

The giant gas fields found off northern Israel over the last two years, which are set to transform the Jewish state's economic fortunes, are believed to extend west toward Cyprus.

The island is also pushing to establish a liquefied natural gas plant to collect pipelined gas from Israel and Cypriot waters and handle exports to Europe through Greece, in a multibillion-dollar undertaking.

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Greece and the Greek Cypriot sector of Cyprus are both members of the European Union.

Both the United States and Russia have recently issued statement supporting the Greek Cypriot position.

So a new Israel-Cyprus-Greece axis shaping up in the eastern Mediterranean that is likely to intensify the tensions generated by the Arab-Israeli conflict and Greece's ancient grudge match with its old nemesis Turkey.

The two-day visit to Israel by Kozakou-Marcoullis, who only took office three weeks ago, was much more than a routine get-together. She headed for Israel as soon as she's made her customary first call on Athens.

"Quite obviously, Nicosia and Athens … put their heads together and assessed that Israeli regional policies are on a remake," observed Indian analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former career diplomat who served in Turkey, Kuwait and the Soviet Union.

"Cyprus and Greece had had indifferent ties with Israel but a compelling commonality of interests is sailing into view. A realignment of regional powers is taking place in the eastern Mediterranean, the leitmotif being the 'containment' of an increasingly assertive Turkey."

This new partnership is likely to be felt as far afield as Iraq, where Israeli support for separatist Kurdish guerrillas in the north against Turkey could escalate.

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A statement issued by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's officer after Kozakou-Marcoullis' visit underscored that Israel had a convergence of interests with Cyprus over Ankara's perceived belligerence.

It noted that Netanyahu and Kozakou-Marcoullis had discussed "the possible expansion of energy cooperation given that both countries have been blessed with natural gas reserves in their maritime economic zones."

On Thursday, as Kozakou-Marcoullis returned to Nicosia, Cypriot Trade Minister Praxoula Antoniadou declared that exploratory drilling of Cypriot waters by Nobel Energy of Houston, the company that struck pay dirt off Israel, would begin shortly.

That's certain to infuriate Ankara.

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