NICOSIA – It’s all about the gas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood at the podium at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia on Thursday – along with the leaders of Greece and Cyprus – and spoke about the historic nature of their three-way summit and the emerging alliance of these three eastern Mediterranean nations.
This was a summit with countries that have for decades been Israel’s largest detractors in Europe. It would be the equivalent of Israel forging a strategic alliance in the future with presently hyper-critical Sweden and Ireland.
The change of attitude of the Greeks and Cypriots did not come about because the leaders of those two countries suddenly woke up and saw the light.
Indeed, Greece is now being ruled by Syriza, a radical left-wing party.
These new ties are not the result of a sudden discovery of long-hidden sympathy and empathy with Zionism. Instead it is a result of the discovery of gas, which has created common interests.
While some trace Israel’s flourishing relations with Greece and Cyprus to 2010 and the Mavi Marmara incident
, which led to a nosedive in Jerusalem’s then-strategic relationship with Turkey – Greece and Cyprus’s historic enemy – the true turning point started a couple years prior, when gas fields were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.
The gas changed everything, and has formed the cement of this new alliance. Decades after saying that it has no natural resources, Israel is now emerging as a regional gas power, in the enviable position of having to decide what exactly to do with its natural gas or – more precisely – where to export it.
There are three options. The first is to export to Egypt for its needs. The second is to export to Turkey, a country facing acute energy anxiety because of its tension with Russia, one of its major energy suppliers.
And a third option is to extend a pipeline to Cyprus and then to Greece – something that was discussed at the Nicosia summit on Thursday. This option is by far the most expensive, with costs likely to reach at least four times the $2 billion estimated to create the infrastructure to export the gas to Egypt or Turkey. This Cyprus-Greece option is also the least strategically important.
After the United States, Israel’s relationship with Egypt is arguably the most important relationship it has with any country in the world. And providing Egypt with gas is a way of cementing that relationship and taking it to another level.
Good relations with Turkey are also strategically important, considering its geography, although these ties are perhaps less critical than they were in the past, because Ankara’s standing in the region has deteriorated so dramatically. Nevertheless, Israel would like to move its relationship with Turkey back to a more solid footing, and supplying it with gas is one way of doing that.
And then there is the Cyprus-Greece option.
This, too, is an important relationship for many different reasons, including having two southern European states as close allies inside the EU, where they could be expected to speak out for Israel in institutions where policy on Israel is taken by a consensus among the 28 EU states. Granted, these two countries are not Germany and France, but they still have a voice.
With its current natural gas capacities, Israel can only chose two of the options. That could change, however, if other gas fields are discovered.
There was much talk among the leaders at Thursday’s summit about regional stability – something that in these days of earthquakes roiling the Middle East seems extremely far-fetched.
But gas has the ability to cement ties and bring together countries that have not historically had close, or even good, ties. Israel’s new alliance with Greece and Cyprus is a case in point.