Discorso “Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean”

Wednesday -Thursday, February 17-18, 2016


The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs held last December in Rome a “Mediterranean Conference” with a rather ambitious title: “ beyond disorder, a positive agenda”. The Great Sea – as professor Abulafia calls Mare Nostrum in his Human History of the Mediterranean- is at the core of Italian history, traditions, and policies. Our security, economic growth, social stability are deeply influenced by regional developments. Migration is the more striking example. The Mediterranean world is interconnected. Thousands of Italian entrepreneurs find their most promising markets around the Great Sea. One tenth of Italian external trade happens to be there.


An emphasis on the Mediterranean is nothing new for Italian foreign policy, and that continued to be true during and after the “Arab Springs”; although Western  engagement  appeared  insufficient and even incoherent.


Opening the Rome Conference Foreign Minister Gentiloni described a Mediterranean policy consisting of three pillars: A) cooperative security among regional and global players; B) dialogue; C) trade opportunities after the Iranian nuclear deal. I wrote an article to say that, to be resilient, a Mediterranean architecture needs first and foremost a strong “architrave”: the “Rule of Law”. It implies a commitment – as art. 2 of Lisbon Treaty requires – to focus diplomacy on individual freedoms, respect of human rights, political pluralism, adherence to international norms and Treaties.


The Rule of Law should be a European and Western priority not in words, but in deeds. And there are strong reasons to believe that the Eastern Mediterranean countries should engage in that direction.


* “Trade opportunities after the Iranian nuclear deal” as “third pillar” of a Mediterranean policy can make sense only if Iran is credible and complies with international obligations. “Cooperative security” and “dialogue” require a commonality of principles, combined with political will and legal instruments to enforce them. State sovereignty, rules on the use of force, confidence building measures come also into the picture, as do maritime communications and cybersecurity.


* Until the early years 2000 cooperative security was the rule of the game in Europe and in the Mediterranean. Ukraine, Syria, Iraq crises have since produced a dangerous setback. The North-Atlantic Alliance will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, the best available multilateral platform towards a much needed architecture of cooperative security also in the Eastern Mediterranean.


* In this region key players are coming together in a “variable geometry” ranging from military to intelligence, from fight against “Islamic State” to human trafficking, to energy, as Dr. Eran Lerman underlined in his recent and brilliant paper “The Mediterranean as a strategic environment: learning a new geo-political language”.


*  Affinity of ideas and cultures – quoting again Dr. Lerman – should be part of the response. Cultural identities rooted in ancient civilizations can be connected to narratives that emphasize how the seeds of the Rule of Law have not been imported, but to a considerable extent have originated in this region. After the failures  of Arab nationalism on one side , and political Islam on the other ,it may be time  to re-discover identities. If for Taha Hussein muta wasatiyyah or “mediterraneite” was a continuation of Egypt’s role in history, for Paul Valéry it was the concept of a “Mediterranean civilization” driven by Spanish, French and Italian experiences; while Fernand Braudel tried to prove that over the centuries a common “Mediterranean civilization” had emerged. A research that Professor Abulafia suggests should focus on diversity and on the “constant flux of external influences from across the sea”.


* Common interests and new narratives can indeed change the way Eastern Mediterranean may evolve towards freer and more pluralist societies especially in a geopolitical space where two triangles (Greece-Cyprus-Egypt and Greece-Cyprus-Israel) overlap and co-exist with other major realities: on the Western side, the European Union and Turkey; on the other side, Russia and Iran.


* If the Mediterranean, will continue to be a strategic Sea Lane between the Atlantic and Asia, and an Assad victory thanks to Russian and Iranian Russian will further enhance Moscow military presence and Iranian influence, key players need closer cooperation, and Western countries more coherent agendas. For Arab Governments actions against radicalization and extremism cannot wait any longer. The culture of hate hurts both peace and regional integration.


A full scope Strategic Cooperation has to develop between the European Union and Israel. It may seem strange that sixty eight years after the foundation of the State of Israel and sixty after the Treaty of Rome we should still be thinking about strengthened political ties between Israel and Europe. In fact, since the very beginning of their existence both Israel and the EEC felt that they had a common destiny.‎ In 1957 thanks to David Ben Gurion Israel was on its way to full membership in the European Community. The following year it was the first Country to establish formal relations with the EEC. In 2014 the EU was the top trading partner of Israel on an almost equal footing with the US: goods for 30 bln E were exchanged with the 28 Europeans, and 28,5 bln E with the Americans. The EU is the second biggest source of R§D funding for Israel.

The European neighborhood policies have increasingly been influenced by the disappointment of the European public and political environment in Israeli- Palestinian negotiations. Their stalemate is generally attributed, in a biased way, more to Israeli than Palestinian responsibilities. Brussels has declared time and again that the further strengthening of the neighbourhood policy vis a vis Jerusalem has to be seen in the broader context of the Palestinian issue, while no similar conditionality exists for the Palestinians.


The offer for a Special Partnership with the EU has been left without specific content. Still, over the past decade Israeli public favour for an “European Perspective” didn’t seem particularly affected by the European criticism. Between 2009 and 2013, in coincidence with the upheavals of the Arab Springs and with the poor record of European and Western countries in addressing crises in South and Estern Mediterranean, 69% of Israelis supported the idea of joining the Union; in 2011 there was even a peak of 81%.

One reason relates to the attachment of many Israelis to the countries their families came from. A second reason can be explained with values that the EU staunchly supports. A third, could be knowledge that their Country is considered by most Europeans an indispensable and vital part of Western civilization, the only real and stable democratic society in the whole region. Huge benefits exist in each step towards closer EU-Israel relations.  Israeli ingenuity provides the best laboratory for many of European  innovations. And there can be few doubts that Israel will continue for a long time to be the best Ally to guarantee a peaceful and prosperous Middle East.


For Israel-EU relations two “sore points” however remain:

  1. a) an increasing anti-Semitism which is detected almost by every poll in Israel and in Europe;
  2. b) a “delegitimization campaign “ against Israel, felt as a denial of the right to exist as Jewish State, of her right to self- defence, and as a tool to damage Israel- Europe relations.


An EU-Israel Strategic Cooperation should be the aim of a tri-dimensional effort, within European Institutions, Member States, Civil societies. Such an approach will also have a value in raising  with the various UE bodies  awareness that  EU security strategies can be enormously helped by a deeper and systematic understanding of Israeli potential. At the same time it could be useful in order to shed a more pragmatic light on the Peace process and to dilute pre-conceived opinions felt at various floors of the Justus Lipsius and Berlaymont HQ.


Over the last two years the Us and the EU have been put on back foot by Russian intervention in Ukraine, Crimea annexation, Russian and Iranian support to Assad and Al Maliki, Iranian nuclear program, Teheran destabilizing activities in the whole region, Palestinian maneuvers at the UN, attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah. A widespread narrative has been disseminated within our countries to confuse public opinion and leaders. A mixture of disinformation and surprise has prepared and accompanied aggressive behaviour and use of force. Fight against jihadist terrorism – namely the Islamic State – has been hindered by actors opposed to Western interests and values.


More then ever before since the end of the “cold war” the need is felt for an  effective coordination between EU, Nato and Israel on the use of information warfare. The Kremlin operates trough a well funded web of agencies, NGOs, think-tanks, media organizations, individuals whose common denominator is anti American, anti European, anti Israeli with frequent hinges of antisemitism and hate propaganda. This vast web of “influencers” has been so successful that nowadays Putin is one of the most respected leaders for large segment of the European public opinion. Rouhani and Khamenei are seen as moderate; Assad as a viable answer for the future of Syria.


“Enlargement fatigue” and disappointments for EU Partnership policies are increasingly evident. The magnet of a “European perspective” seems to be fading away. But that should not happen vis a vis Israel. FM Lieberman said in 2010 that “as regards culture, economy, values we feel part of the European Union”; and years before Benjamin Netanyahu asked that Israel “achieves the goal of joining the Union”. PM Berlusconi, visiting Israel in 2003, did advocate Israel’s full membership in Europe as ” my biggest dream”. Italian members of the European Parliament  and Senate moved motions aimed at the accession of Israel to the Union. The atmosphere changed in July 2013 when the EU Guidelines established the ineligibility of European funds for Israelis in the Territories; and again in 2014 when an European Court removed Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations; while European criticism against new constructions in the West Bank drew acid remarks in Israel. The shock provoked last year by the massacres in France, the raising number of antisemitic incidents, the appeal to French Jews to emigrate to Israel, were added to an already cooling trend.


Even more so a new concept and narrative should be put at the center of the EU- Israel relations: at the multilateral and at the national level. It is time to give substance to objectives defined by our common national interest. A true Strategic Cooperation is needed between Europe and Israel in the Mediterranean. And Italy can contribute to it on two levels:




On January 28 a trilateral summit – Israel, Cyprus, Greece – was held in Nicosia to reinforce cooperation in the energy sector. A gas pipeline between Cyprus and Greece was discussed, in view of connecting the huge east Mediterranean gas fields of Leviathan, Tamar and  Afrodite to Europe. There are engineering challenges to be met as well as questions concerning the financial sustainability in the present market outlook. The discovery of Zohr in Egyptian waters adds to the complexity of the whole picture. After the first impact  the news had on the stock market and on pre-existing strategies, the Italian Government and the main Italian operators are convinced that enormous opportunities exist now to create a regional hub for gas production in the Eastern Mediterranean which would significantly change and strengthen the overall framework of energy security not only in this region, but in southern Europe as well. While  Gas Liquefiers in Egypt could reach full capacity and serve local customers, new interconnectors should involve Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece , Italy and the Adriatic Countries through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, becoming a major factor in gas supply differentiation for Southern Europe. An important perspective in geopolitical terms. Furthermore, the new “hub” could serve and accrue bilateral and multilateral energy cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and enhance opportunities for  export  as well foreign Direct Investments in gas fields development. Cooperation between Israel and Italy in new projects for sub –Sahara regions in the energy sector are currently discussed at Government and industry level.




The positive experience Italy has made over the last 20 years with the 5+5 West Mediterranean Dialogue needs to be expanded to the East Mediterranean, and even more so in the present contingencies. Special focus could be reserved on migrations, confidence building measures and early warning, political dialogue among interested Countries. The core group could be formed by Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, with the aim to expand to other neighbours as soon as local conditions may allow it.

©2024 Giulio Terzi

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