The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act is a “historic, truly transformational development,” which places Greece, Cyprus and Israel on the front line of American policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In an interview with Kathimerini, American Jewish Committee (AJC) CEO David Harris and Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) Executive Director Endy Zemenides note the act’s importance in providing an institutional framework for significant developments in the region, namely the energy and security cooperation between the three countries.
Even as they stress that the legislation, which US President Donald Trump signed into law last week, is not aimed against Ankara, they note that in Congress “both Democrats and Republicans realize we can’t rely today on Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.” And even as they agree that each of its provisions represents a tactical move, they also note that “as a whole it presents a new strategy” for the United States in the region, one made possible thanks to the leadership and advocacy of AJC and HALC, among others.
Up until a few weeks ago, the East Med Act was considered too ambitious to pass in Congress. How did this outcome come about?
Endy Zemenides: The East Med Act was indeed ambitious from the beginning but those that considered it too ambitious underestimated its chances. It all started with the members of Congress that came together to coauthor and introduce the act. Senators [Bob] Menendez and [Marco] Rubio, representatives [Gus] Bilirakis, [David] Cicilline and [Ted] Deutch are not only among the most active members of Congress on the region, but they all have a track record of working on a bipartisan basis and were all willing to exercise political capital to move this forward.
Then there was the broad coalition of civic groups advocating for the act. When it was first introduced, HALC’s members made thousands of phone calls and sent tens of thousands of emails to their own members of Congress. We set up meetings with senators and representatives in their home offices. Then the act became a legislative priority during the AJC’s Global Forum, where thousands of advocates spread across Capitol Hill lobbying for the act. Days later, the PSEKA [Cyprus and Hellenic Leadership] Conference advocated for the East Med Act. One month later, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) joined the coalition and made the act a legislative priority. Dozens of meetings took place with members of Congress in DC and across the country over the summer. And then HALC and AJC members made a major push during the CHIA [Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance] Advocacy Conference in October.
Not a single week passed this year in which some progress was not made on this act, and when combined with the regional developments which provided the backdrop to the policies contained in it, undeniable momentum was generated to get it across the finish line.
What does it signify for American foreign policy in the East Med?
David Harris: This is a historic, truly transformational development in United States foreign policy. Both Democrats and Republicans realize that we can’t rely today on Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. America’s frontline in this strategically and economically vital region comprises Greece, Cyprus and Israel, as well as several Arab countries, beginning with Egypt and Jordan.
At the heart of the act is the impact of malign actors in the region at a time of deteriorating relations with Turkey. Is the imperative to support the partnership of America’s allies in the region a tactical or strategic move for the US?
DH: The East Med Act has several provisions and each one represents a tactical move. But as a whole it presents a new strategy. The US has long based its Eastern Mediterranean strategy on Turkey. The East Med Act is evidence of a shift in that strategy.
In Greece, a lot of emphasis was given on military cooperation and lifting the arms embargo on Cyprus. What do you consider as the most important provisions of the East Med Act for the region, and in particular for the trilateral partnership with Israel?
DH: The US – by lifting the Cyprus arms embargo – is rectifying an anarchic and unintentionally injurious law. Cyprus has time and again proven itself to be a true partner of the US – in combating terror, cooperating militarily and in supporting our partner Israel. Removing arms restrictions against Cyprus removes the ceiling on our relationship and allows cooperation to flourish.
EZ: David is right about the Cyprus arms embargo – its repeal along with the Republic of Cyprus entering the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program will allow the successful Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral into a true 3+1 with the United States on the security front. The provisions supporting regional energy diplomacy and authorizing the establishment of an Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center are equally important. The East Med Act is institutionalizing important trends and partnerships.
Still, President Trump continues to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite the delivery of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and his destabilizing policy in the region – in Syria, in Libya and towards Greece, Egypt and Cyprus. Will the president have to abide by the provisions of this act, or are we heading for a standoff with Congress?
DH: Turkey’s often counterproductive role in the region must be checked. Allies must be allies in words and deeds. And while we celebrate this major development, we must acknowledge sad moments and work that remains to be done. Despite bipartisan support in Congress to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the White House refuses to do the same. Why? Fear of Turkey, same as during the Obama era. The truth must not be sacrificed to political intimidation.
EZ: The East Med Act is not based on an anti-Turkey policy but on a new US policy in the region that deepens cooperation with reliable and democratic allies. Just like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, there is room for Turkey at the table if it wants to be a constructive actor that plays by the rules that its neighbors agree to. But the days of letting Turkey write its own rules and have people turn a blind eye to its bullying in the region are over.