In my years reporting on Israel’s newborn energy sector for Bloomberg News, I encountered no small share of skeptics regarding the magnitude of Israel’s natural gas discoveries, among both industry experts, and my own Middle East editors.
To be fair, that attitude was understandable.
There is no arguing just how important the Tamar and Leviathan fields are to the Israeli economy. Their discovery, which provided this country with energy self-sufficiency just when it faced a potential crisis from the cutoff of imported Egyptian gas, was so fortuitously timed as to practically rate as a miracle.
It’s a tougher to make the case for Israel as a significant energy exporter. The 30+ trillion cubic feet of gas thus far found off our Mediterranean coast, while nothing to sneeze at, pales in comparison to the fuel resources of true gas giants such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.
But even more problematic are the hurdles to be overcome in getting our gas to foreign markets. A few industry experts I would speak with used the phrase “trapped gas” to describe Israeli fuel finds that are blocked by geopolitical considerations and market valuations.
Closed borders prevent what would be the cheapest delivery system to potential markets, via overland pipelines. Construction of plants to convert the gas to liquefied natural gas for tanker shipment may not be worth the money given low global fuel prices.
The LNG option may still be viable, if Israel can work out a deal to move its gas via the Sinai pipeline or a new undersea conduit to Egypt. From the very beginning, though, it has been clear that most cost-efficient option for Israeli gas exports is construction of an undersea pipeline to Turkey, and hooking up there with existing conduits into European markets.
Unfortunately, that route was unlikely to materialize until last month, when Israel and Turkey finally signed an agreement restoring political ties ruptured since the 2009 IDF naval raid on the Gaza-blockade buster Mavi Marmara
that left nine Turks dead. Paving the way toward construction of an Israeli-Turkish gas conduit was a key component of the reconciliation deal.
But now that a pipeline to Turkey is no longer a pipe-dream, the Israeli government and energy industry has to grapple with another question, especially after this week’s event: Is the potential game-changing impact of a gas link with Turkey worth dramatically deepening our geo-economic connections with a country ruled by the increasingly despotic and mercurial Recep Tayyip Erdogan? MAKE NO MISTAKE, there are powerful interests pushing for this project to go ahead, despite the risks.
To start with there are those private energy companies that stand to directly benefit once the gas gets flowing. This is includes the owners of the Tamar and Leviathan licenses, including US firm Noble Energy, and their Israeli partners, headed by Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek companies. Then there are the Turkish firms aiming to profit from their end of distribution, such as Zorlu Energy and Turcas Petrol.
But the key booster on the Turkish end is Erdogan himself. It was Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last November and the threat of retaliation from Moscow that spooked Erdogan’s concerns over his country’s dependence on Russian gas, which totals over half of its energy imports. The Turkish president suddenly found it convenient to drop his demand that Israel lift its maritime blockade of Gaza, in return for the prospect of an Israel energy link that will both lessen Turkey’s dependence on Russian fuel, and give it control over another energy conduit running through its territory into Europe.
As for the Israeli government, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz have promoted a gas pipeline to Turkey as a win-win for both nations. An export infrastructure mechanism to European markets for Israeli gas will undoubtedly help promote greater exploration in the so-called Levant Basin that geological surveys estimate hold at least four times the amount of current discovered reserves.
Other potential benefits, as Netanyahu knows all too well, are not just economic.
Turning Israel into an energy exporter to Europe could have serious strategic significance.
This is not to suggest that Israel’s gas resources will suddenly turn into a trump card it can play to alter the equation on its disputes with the international community over the Palestinian issue – not when countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have far bigger energy hands to play.
But just imagine a future where Israeli gas fields make a major contribution in supplying Europe’s energy needs, and how that could impact the way in which the world views military threats against this country.
That is certainly a tantalizing prospect for many here, and for Israel’s supporters abroad.
Not everyone though. David Wurmser, a former foreign policy adviser in the George W. Bush White House who now works as an energy consultant, is among those who have repeatedly cautioned Jerusalem against the Turkish pipeline option. Such an energy link “would be subject to political blackmail on Ankara’s part,” Wurmser has written, as well as vulnerable to sabotage and risk-provoking geostrategic opposition from Russia.
“Moreover, despite apologies and an air of détente,” Wurmser noted well before the reconciliation deal was reached, “the longterm trends indicate that broader tensions between Israel and Turkey will continue rather than recede because of the ideological outlook governing Ankara as it seeks to rehabilitate its bygone Ottoman glory.”
I’ve discussed with several government officials and gas industry figures here about the possibility that Erdogan could eventually use his control over a pipeline against Israel, and they respond with good points: Turkey would have much more to lose than Israel if it stopped the flow of fuel in its direction for political reasons, and Erdogan has always separated economic issues with Israel from his ideological agenda.
The best evidence for the latter is that Israel-Turkey bilateral trade has actually increased by nearly 20 percent over the past seven years of diplomatic tension.
A gas pipeline is also an investment in the future of Israel-Turkey relations ultimately extending beyond Erdogan’s reign.
So maybe the pipeline boosters are right that the potential benefits outweigh the dangers. But I can’t help wondering if events in Turkey over the past week shouldn’t spur a serious rethinking of that supposition.
Erdogan looks more than ever a would be sultan, and is leading Turkey into a very dark place, one whose future is murkier than ever. It would be a shame for Israel to wake up one day, when it is too late, and suddenly find that its dreams of becoming a real energy exporter have turned from a Turkish delight, into a Turkish nightmare.
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.