Souring Mediterranean Relations Need Smoothing

Turkey's recent relations with Israel have been marked by aggressive rhetoric regarding shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey's suggestion that it may use its navy to protect vessels drew angry comments from Israeli cabinet members. Analysts say it's important for the Obama administration's to keep the area from further heating up.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

President Obama has a meeting today with the prime minister of Turkey. They'll be talking about tensions in the eastern Mediterranean that have escalated sharply over the past few weeks. The tense relationship between Turkey and Israel has now expanded to include the divided island of Cyprus. The dispute there involves huge natural gas fields and what country has the right to explore them. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: Shortly before leaving on his tour of Arab Spring countries this month, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his promise that turkey would no longer stand for what he has called Israeli bullying in the eastern Mediterranean.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) The eastern Mediterranean is not a strange place for us. From now on our ships will, of course, show themselves in those waters more frequently.

KENYON: Turkey's hostility toward Israel grew after a U.N. report declared Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip to be legal. Then economic interests appeared on the scene, adding more countries and more complications to the mix. Greek-controlled Cyprus, in partnership with Israel and an American energy company, says it has begun natural gas drilling in the waters between Cyprus and Israel. Turkey, which has occupied northern Cyprus since 1974, says no drilling should occur while the island remains divided, and says it's prepared to send another rig, accompanied by a warship, to drill in the Eastern Mediterranean as well.

The resource dispute, coupled with the troubled Turkish-Israeli relationship, has raised fresh concerns about a region with a long history of instability. Athens-based security analyst Ioannis Michaletos says neither Turkey nor Israel is looking for a naval confrontation right now, but that doesn't rule one out.

IOANNIS MICHALETOS: But there could be cases of provocation by either side that could lead to a hot incident, as the military calls it, which will have big diplomatic repercussions.

KENYON: Serdar Erdurmaz, a former Turkish military officer and NATO official who now directs an Ankara think tank, agrees that the chances of an actual naval confrontation remain low. But he says a Turkish naval presence will send a strong signal that Turkey won't be pushed around.

SERDAR ERDURMAZ: (Through Translator) One of the goals is that by showing off its naval power in international waters, Turkey will let everyone know that it's willing to stand up for the rights that Turkey or Northern Cyprus has there.

KENYON: Catherine Hunter, an energy analyst with IHS Global Insight in London, says the markets are watching with interest to see if the gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean prove to be as large as estimated, possibly up to 25 trillion cubic feet of gas. She says geopolitics are complicating things, but the stakes are high enough that Greek-controlled Cyprus will proceed with drilling.

CATHERINE HUNTER: And then we'll see, you know, whether Turkey is saber-rattling or whether it moves instead to a political response.

KENYON: To further complicate matters, another flap is brewing, between Israel and Lebanon, over a gas discovery along their border area that both countries claim. The potential benefits are huge. Israel, for instance, could transform itself from a natural gas importer to exporter if it can develop these finds. But the fallout could be messy.

For Hugh Pope, a longtime Cyprus watcher with the International Crisis Group, one side-effect may be to render the prospects for reunifying Cyprus gloomier than ever.

HUGH POPE: The gas decisions which have been made, first of all, by the Greek Cypriots to go ahead with drilling is their absolute international right. But it's also absolutely un-sensible of them, because it was bound to provoke Turkey into something. And Turkey has decided to respond by adding to the separateness of Northern Cyprus, and unfortunately it's not just jockeying. This is the way things are going. We're moving towards ever greater separation between the two sides of Cyprus.

KENYON: That has important ramifications on a number of fronts - not least Turkey's bid to join the European Union. But for Western analysts, the most urgent need is to begin to calm things between Turkey and Israel during today's meeting between the Turkish and U.S. leaders.

An op-ed piece in The Washington Post recently urged President Obama to bail out what it called a floundering Mideast policy, by dispatching the Sixth Fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean. Others are hoping that diplomacy can bring a calming influence to waters that are growing increasingly choppy.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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