Israel makes inroads into Mediterranean alliance with gas pipe deal

Working alongside Cyprus and Greece on the gas pipeline deal gives Israel leverage into Southern Europe as well as in the wider Middle East, potentially realigning local alliances.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2020. (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2020.
Israel is establishing a new alliance system in the Mediterranean, anchored in a potential energy pipeline passing near Cyprus to Greece and Europe. It could increase regional stability and turn Israel into an energy hub. The development also has ramifications for recent aggressive moves by Turkey to lay claim to a swath of ocean between Cyprus, Greece and Libya.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Athens for the signing of a deal related to the pipeline on Thursday, at a meeting also attended by Greek Prime Minister Kyriako Mitotakis and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades. The new entente will be cemented by the East Med pipeline that will go from Israel via Cyprus to Greece. But it may face opposition from Turkey.
Turkey has made surprising moves recently in the Mediterranean. The country signed a deal in November with the embattled Tripoli-based government of Libya, even as the Benghazi based Libyan National Army threatened to push into Tripoli as part of an eight year civil war. Turkey says the agreement could mean Turkish forces, or at least Syrian rebel mercenaries, could be sent to Libya, the idea being to trade some Turkish military support for Turkish rights to an exclusive economic zone.
That zone overlaps with Greek and Cyprus claims. Turkey sent drones to northern Cyprus, and has dispatched ships and F-16s into the skies over the Mediterranean to show off Turkish power.
Turkey’s leading party makes no secret of its hatred for Israel, even though it has diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey stands alone in supporting Palestinians; he recently hosted Hamas leaders and has compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
In the face of a hostile Turkey, once a close ally of Israel, Jerusalem has reached out to Cyprus and Greece. This is a reversal of the situation held decades ago, but that’s how alliances work. Sometimes an entente, like that between Britain and France, can come into shape based on mutual interests and common adversaries.
These days, Israeli military cooperation with Cyprus is more common. Cyprus was a pioneer in signing exclusive economic zone agreements with foresight toward gas exploration. It signed deals with Egypt in 2003, with Lebanon in 2007, and then with Israel in 2010. By contrast Turkey lay claim to a “blue motherland” of waters off Cyprus, saying that its continental shelf gives it these rights. It also maintains claims to northern Cyprus, unrecognized by the international community.
Meanwhile, Israel, Greece and Cyprus have been exploring more cooperation on numerous levels, including tourism. Futhermore, an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum has convened, with Italy, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority all taking part.
It’s clear that all these states have shared interests. Ostensibly they could also work with Turkey as they have in the past, but Turkey’s aggressive stance shows that Ankara wants to perform a “sea-grab” first and then negotiate. Turkish social media has been full of memes showing Turkey and Libya shaking hands and “blocking” Israel and the Greeks.
There is a nationalist fervor in Turkey, which has been talking about buying new submarines and is building anti-ship missiles. Turkey wants more drilling ships for its own Turkish gas companies. Turkish Petroleum is taking the lead, in contrast to Cyprus and Israel's efforts, in which foreign gas companies play a role in the economic zones being carved into blocks. Turkey’s push is an intensely nationalist one, forming part of Turkey’s overall change in posture from “zero problems with our neighbors” to demanding a larger role in the region.
Israel, on the other hand, views Greece and Cyprus potentially as allowing it to link its energy policy through to southern Europe. Here again though Israel competes with Turkey, because Turkey and Russia built the TurkStream pipeline to Europe. This could put Israel at odds with powerful countries, and at a disadvantage as Israel's alliance is with smaller states with less expertise in pipelines.
The question then for Israel is whether all the talk and signing of agreements will result in action. Cyprus, Greece and Israel are all complex democracies; larger, more authoritarian states can build pipelines faster. It is also not clear how warm relations are between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, the other potential partners, while relations with the Palestinian Authority are decidedly cold.
Meanwhile, Turkey would like to join forces with Hamas in Gaza; they tried this with the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.
Greece is currently seeking out partners, including Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other allies who share the Egyptian worldview opposing Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood, but there are other potential players. The role of Tunisia is unknown. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went to Tunisia on December 25 for a surprise visit.
Then there is Algeria, right now in the midst of a new political sea-change, but which could potentially be more open to an alliance with Israel. Yet Algeria’s revolutionary past makes it difficult for the country to tip-toe toward an Israeli alliance.
To complicate matters, Netanyahu's battles at home mean that the entente with Greece and Cyprus, which would normally be a crowning achievement, comes amid new election and his desire for immunity.
Certainly Israel will gain some interlocutor through this such as Greece foreign minister Nikos Dendias, a shuttle diplomat who recently went to Libya, Greece and Cyprus to discuss regional security, also holding talks with Abu Dhabi. On January 2 he received Netanyahu and tweeted a photo. With capable diplomat like Dendias there is hope for the East Med concept.
In engineering terms, the pipeline will be a hurdle. It will be about as long as the NordStream pipeline from Russia to Germany, making it longer underwater than the TurkStream pipeline across the Black Sea. At the end of the day, it will require good firms and investment to build it.
Given the sluggish pace of bureaucracy in Israel and some of the countries involved, let alone involvement by Italy and others, getting it done may prove to be a challenge, but it starts Israeli diplomacy out on a good note for 2020.