Turkish President Erdogan blinks first in eastern Mediterranean standoff

Turkey's research vessel, Oruc Reis has left a disputed area of the eastern Mediterranean that has been at the heart of a summer stand-off between Greece and Turkey over energy rights. (AP/File)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Turkish President Erdogan blinks first in eastern Mediterranean standoff

  • Pulls provocative oil survey vessel out of Greek waters, opening door to talks
  • Marketing of natural gas has changed geopolitical dynamics of eastern Mediterranean maritime boundary disputes, says analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed down on Sunday from looming conflict in the eastern Mediterranean by ordering a research ship operating in Greek territorial waters to return to the Turkish coast.

Tension in the region had soared since the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel and an escort flotilla of Turkish navy frigates was deployed last month near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, despite repeated protests from Athens and the EU, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Turkish exploration for oil and gas was accompanied by increasingly bellicose rhetoric and insults from Erdogan, aimed at Greece, Cyprus and France. As recently as Saturday, the Turkish president told Macron: “Don’t mess with the Turkish people. Don’t mess with Turkey,” while the latter said earlier in the week that Ankara was “no longer a partner” in the Mediterranean region.

On Sunday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar admitted that the vessel had returned to the Turkish coast, and satellite trackers showed it near the port of Antalya.

“This is a positive first step,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. “I hope there will be more of them.”

Pro-Erdogan media in Turkey said the withdrawal of the Oruc Reis was “a step toward giving diplomacy a chance,” and linked it to attempts to initiate talks between Greece and Turkey.

But efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff have so far proved fruitless.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited Kastellorizo on Sunday and accused Turkey of “mounting pressure” on Athens.

“We are going through a difficult and dangerous period,” she said.

“The Turkish leadership ... is undermining the peaceful coex-stence that was built over many decades by Greeks and Turks, who saw the sea between them not as an impenetrable frontier but as a passage of communication.”

Now the question is whether this step will pave way for diplomacy in the controversial waters, through NATO and a German mediation offer, for Turkish-Greek talks.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Turkey’s military high command arrived in Antalya on Sunday, just across from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, where Greece’s president was expected to visit the same day.

“We keep telling (Greece) often that we are patient and strong,” Akar told pro-government TV station A Haber.

Turkey and Greece are NATO members, alongside France, with Paris particularly vociferous against Turkish actions. But to what extent Paris and Ankara are ready to talk, after so many verbal attacks between the countries’ leaders is a source of concern.

Macron also hosted an emergency EuroMed 7 summit, dubbed as “Club Med,” on Sept. 10 with the leaders of Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Cyprus.

The EU remains divided in coping with tensions in the region, and needs to act in unison in order to offer a sustainable solution through diplomacy.

Against the “bad cop” policy of France through shows of military strength, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been mediating between Turkey and Greece to minimize the confrontation risks in the area, and to protect EU interests.

Prof. Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), said the marketing of natural gas had changed the geopolitical dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean maritime boundary disputes.

“For Turkey, the conflict is fundamentally about what Ankara sees as Greece’s unjust maritime sovereignty claims. But now Turkey has to contend with an alignment of European and Middle Eastern actors in supporting Greece,” he told Arab News.

“Turkey views its future political and economic influence across the entire Mediterranean region and in Africa (as being) at stake.”

EU leaders will hold a summit on Sept. 24-25  to push for diplomacy and use a “stick” strategy, through potential sanctions against Turkish naval exercises and maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean, at the expense of France, Cyprus and Greece.

According to Tanchum, the European Council meeting and its decision on a course of action vis-à-vis Turkey is the next inflection point.

“The most critical country for determining the direction of the outcome is Italy. Turkey’s growing economic competition with Italy in Libya may tip that balance,” he said.

Experts all agree that negotiation is the key for bringing peace and stability to the region’s waters, as no country can shoulder the risks of a possible conflict.

The solution to these maritime disputes is through dialogue, not through aggressive actions, according to Charles Ellinas, CEO of the Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company and energy expert at the Atlantic Council research center.

“And if dialogue does not work, to refer the case to international courts — both Greece and Turkey expressed readiness to do that,” he told Arab News.

But, Ellinas added, in order to allow dialogue to commence there is a need to refrain from actions that stop it.

“Within this context the withdrawal of Oruc Reis is a positive step. Hopefully this first step will be followed by a period of calm to allow the mediators to bring the two sides together,” he said, adding that eventual agreement between Greece and Turkey could be a big contribution to resolving other disputes in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, the chances of hydrocarbons being present in the area of dispute between Greece and Turkey remains very low.

“Gas is not the reason for the dispute but the pretext. War on this basis is futile. That’s why dialogue is key,” Ellinas said.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Cyprus have begun negotiations for the launch of an offshore gas pipeline, starting from the Aphrodite gas field in Cyprus and stretching to Cairo, in a bid to gain a foothold in the European market.


Palestinians should support candidates ‘based on issues not ethnicity’

Updated 37 min 12 sec ago

Palestinians should support candidates ‘based on issues not ethnicity’

  • Newman came within 2,000 votes of unseating Dan Lipinski
  • The 3rd Congressional District has been held by a Democrat since 1975 and is overwhelmingly Democratic

CHICAGO: Most Arab-Americans in an Illinois congressional district race chose to support an American candidate who supported Arab and Palestinian rights over a Palestinian Arab-American candidate they said could not win the election, the spokesman for the winner said on Wednesday.

Shadin Maali, whose family originates from Beitunia, Palestine near Ramallah, said she agreed to become the spokesperson for Marie Newman over the candidacy of Palestinian American videographer Rashad “Rush” Darwish because Darwish could not win and Newman could.

Maali, who serves as Newman’s campaign chairwoman and spokesperson, said Newman sought Arab-American support, embracing many of the community’s political concerns. Newman, she said, listened to the community and included them in her campaign. That support, she said, helped to unseat Congressman Dan Lipinski, an entrenched eight-term conservative Democrat who had marginalized Arab-American issues and supported many anti-Palestinian congressional bills.

“A representative, if they are going to represent our district, he needs to align with our values. If he wants our support, he needs to align with our values, which are not radical values,” Maali said during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Show” on Detroit’s WNZK AM 690 and US Arab Radio network, which is sponsored by Arab News newspaper every Wednesday morning.

“We support human rights. To support civil rights. To support justice. The fact that he (Lipinski) didn’t care and denied and declined meeting with us was a slap in the face.”

Newman came within 2,000 votes of unseating Lipinski, losing in March 2018. But with Arab-American support, she easily defeated Lipinski in the March 2020 Democratic Primary by more than 2,816 votes.

Newman won with 52,384 votes while Lipinski lost with 49,568. The Palestinian-Arab candidate who tried to appeal to Arab-American candidates, Rush Darwish, spent nearly $800,000 on the election but only won 6,351 votes, or 5.7 percent of the 110,852 votes cast.

Maali said that she unsuccessfully appealed to Darwish to exit the race and support Newman, who backs many of the issues that Arabs and Palestinian Americans support.

Newman “had the strongest path to victory,” Maali said, while Rush Darwish, a first-time candidate with little experience, did not. She called it a “tough choice,” but added that in the end the best interests of the district’s constituents, including Arab Americans, was the priority.

“So, when she asked me to be her campaign chairwoman, it was a hard decision for me to make because we did have an Arab-American, a Palestinian-American running,” she said.

“That was the reason why I supported her because she represented us on our issues. She gave us a platform . . . and she could win.”

The 3rd Congressional District has been held by a Democrat since 1975 and is overwhelmingly Democratic. It was ranked as having the eighth largest Arab-American population of 50 American congressional districts by The New York Times. It also has the largest concentration of Palestinian-American voters, Maali said.

Maali said that to be successful in winning support for Palestine, Arab-American voters also needed to support the mainstream American population on issues that were important to them.

“Palestine is not the only issue,” she said.

“We care about health care. We care about education. We care about incentives for small businesses. We care about the refugees and immigration reform. We care about all of those issues. We are here as Americans. We care about making sure human rights are not violated anywhere in the world.”

Maali said that Newman supported the right of Arab-Americans to express their opposition to the policies of foreign countries such as Israel, noting that boycotts were an expression of free speech.

Acknowledging that Americans boycotting the racism of the government of South Africa helped to force the end of apartheid there, Maali said Americans also supported boycotting Israel’s government policies, which discriminated against civilians.

“We wanted to make sure we would always be able to practice our right to boycott because it is a fundamental civil right,” Maali said.

Lipinski, she said, supported the passage of legislation that punished Americans who supported boycotting Israeli government policies in the Occupied West Bank.

During the second segment of the radio show, conservative political consultant, Jeff Davis, of Victory Media, said that the public should not rely on news media polling that showed former Vice President Joe Biden as having a significant edge over President Donald Trump.

Davis said that voters should concentrate on several key battleground states including Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and Michigan.

An analysis of the Arab-American population shows that four battleground states — Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — have significant Arab-American voters who could help to drive the election results.

But Davis said that with the new system of mail-in ballots, some state elections might not be fully tabulated for as long as 10 days after the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

“The question really is, how soon will we know? The difference is vote-by-mail applications because of COVID-19 are through the roof. What that means is you are going to have a certain amount of percentage that is going to be outstanding on election day,” Davis said.

 “We might not know for nine days (after the election),” Davis said.

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“The Ray Hanania Show” is broadcast every Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. EST in Detroit and simulcast on the Arab News newspaper Facebook page. For more information, visit Arab News online at www.arabnews.com/us2020election.