Israel is Diving Into the Troubled Eastern Mediterranean

An ambitious new natural-gas pipeline project puts it into direct conflict with Turkey.

The Israeli cabinet approved a pipeline deal to move gas offshore via Cyprus to Greece and Europe. The 1,900-kilometer (1,181 miles) link will connect gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean basin to European markets. The $6 billion project, many years in the discussion, was boosted in January by an agreement signed in Athens between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts.

The EastMed project puts Israel on a collision course with Turkey. Ankara has laid claim, reinforced with a maritime deal with Libya, to large parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, where it is exploring for gas—and conducting naval exercises. These moves are exacerbating tensions with Greece.

Israeli-Turkish relations are as low as they have been in years. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made support for the Palestinians a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and the ruling AK Party uses every opportunity to slam Israel. In a recent televised speech, Erdogan said the conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque a step to liberating Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. For Israel, Turkey’s support for Hamas in Gaza as a constant provocation.

Disputes over exploration rights and pipelines will add fuel to the heated rhetoric between the two countries. Turkish naval vessels harassed an Israeli research vessel near Cyprus last December, and Israel’s annual military assessment listed Turkey as a “challenge” for the first time last year.

Other voices will be raised, as well. Russia has opened a natural-gas link to Turkey through the Turkstream pipeline, causing concern in Washington about Russian inroads into Europe, via Turkey. Egypt has its own claims to gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus and Greece have already raised alarms over the Turkish-Libyan delineation of maritime rights, which intersects with the planned route for the EastMed pipeline.

For good measure, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has joined the issue, calling for European Union sanctions against Turkey over what he described as “violations” of the sovereignty of Cyprus and Greece.

Israel’s main interest in the Mediterranean is to build on alliances with Greece and Cyprus that has grown over the past few decades. This dovetails with the interests of Egypt and France—which, along with the United Arab Emirates, are also anxious about Turkey’s military involvement in the Libyan civil war.

Israeli-Greek military relations have deepened recently. Greece has signed a deal to lease Israeli drones, and Israeli Air Force jets have participated in a major Greek military exercise. Israeli-Greek military cooperation is a frequent topic of discussion at Israeli policy discussions and think-tanks.

This marks a shift in emphasis for Israel, which previously did not play a major role in Mediterranean issues. Israel’s navy has never been regarded as a major military arm: it relies principally on submarines and corvettes to project power beyond its nautical borders. (Israel is taking delivery of new Sa’ar 6 class corvettes and will eventually build new Reshef class combat vessels to protect its exclusive economic zone.) But the Israeli powerful air force, with its fifth-generation F-35s, compliments Greek naval power.

The EastMed deal has moved at a snail’s pace compared to Nord Stream, TurkStream and other pipelines. For this reason, Israel has been reticent to join Greece, Cyprus and Egypt in pushing back against Turkish-Libyan maritime.

As Turkey deepens its involvement in Libya and steps up its own surveying and drilling activities, a clash with Israel and Greece appears inevitable. Israel’s goal will be to encourage the U.S. and the EU, as well as Russia, to help find an accommodation. But having decided to enter the troubled waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel can no longer prevent its feet from getting wet.  

Source: Bloomberg