Analysis: How Israel can strengthen ties via gas and water

This deal sends a message that openly doing business with Israel is something that is both acceptable and beneficial.

February 20, 2018 21:22
3 minute read.
Israeli's Navy patrols the sea near a natural gas rig

Israeli's Navy patrols the sea near a natural gas rig. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)


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In early 2004, Jerusalem and Ankara ended more than four years of negotiations and signed a deal that would supply Israel with a billion cubic meters of water from Turkey’s Manavgat River over a 20-year period.

Creative ideas for transporting the water were discussed, including pumping the water into giant rubber balloons which would be linked together and towed to Ashkelon, or pumping the water into converted oil tankers and shipping the water to the Jewish state.

Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon saw the deal as a win-win situation. Israel would be able to alleviate its water shortage, Turkey would be able to finally put to use a specially built facility on the Manavgat River to export water, and the deal would bind the two friendly countries even closer together.

This, indeed, was the reason that the Foreign Ministry advocated for it, even as the Finance Ministry opposed it because the price of this water was more expensive than simply desalinating. But the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office felt there was something greater at stake here than just water and shekels: This was a way to cement Israel’s strategic relations with a key Mideast nation.

Then-Prime Minister’s Office director-general Avigdor Yitzhaki, who was closely involved in the talks with the Turks, said this was not an economic issue. Rather, he said at the time, “It’s a strategic and political issue.”

The deal was eventually abandoned in 2006, partly because no cheap and effective way was found to transport the water, partly because by then Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Turkey’s prime minister, and the chill winds of change in Ankara’s attitude toward Israel were already blowing.

Even though this idea was abandoned, the principle that animated it is a strong one: the more intertwined Israel’s relations with neighboring countries are, the better.

Up until the early 2000s, Israel-to-Turkish arms sales were the main engine in that relationship. The idea behind importing the water was to diversify the ties, give them an economic component, create an economic interdependence that neither side would want to unravel.

Though the project did not succeed with Turkey, the hope is that the $15 billion natural gas deal announced on Monday between Israel and Egypt will greatly cement the ties between those two countries, and give the relationship a powerful layer on top of the strong security component which presently underpins them.

This deal – which will have Israel sell the gas to Egypt from its Leviathan and Tamar offshore deposits – is not only about increased tax revenues in Israel, and the possibility of turning Egypt into a natural gas hub from which energy would be exported to Europe and Asia. It is also – at least from Jerusalem’s vantage point – a way to tie the countries together in a way which will be difficult for anyone to tear apart because there will be too many economic interests at stake.

It is no secret that the peace between Israel and Egypt, just as Israel’s peace with Jordan, is really a peace between governments: The governments and militaries and intelligence communities cooperate closely, but the sentiment on the streets of Cairo and Amman remains intensely anti-Israel. This deal will not change the public enmity, but it will help legitimize ties between the countries.

Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, is opposed to the normalization of ties with Israel until there is a breakthrough on the Palestinian issue, and the very term normalization is anathema to many in the Arab world. The gas deal does not normalize ties, but it can be considered what former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold has referred to as one more small steady step toward “normalized interactions,” with Israel’s hope being that one step will lead to another, and then to many more.

That Egypt signed this massive deal with Israel now, and that Jordan signed a $10b. deal to buy Israeli natural gas two years ago, in no way means that other Arab countries – specifically the Persian Gulf countries – are standing in line to sign massive economic deals with Israel. For one thing, both Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, while none of the other Arab countries does.

Nevertheless, this deal sends a message that openly doing business with Israel is something that is both acceptable and beneficial: A message that has sorely been missing in even those countries with whom Israel is formally at peace, and something that can only further strengthen those peaceful relations.

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