Israel makes inroads into Mediterranean alliance with gas pipe deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Athens for the signing of a deal related to the pipeline. Greek Prime Minister Kyriako Mitotakis and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades attended.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu boarding the plane to Athens (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu boarding the plane to Athens
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
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 make Israel into an energy hub. It 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. Greek Prime Minister Kyriako Mitotakis and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades attended. 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. It 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 is 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 sent 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 Israel. 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, which was once a close ally of Israel, Jerusalem has reached out to Cyprus and Greece. This is a reversal of decades ago. But that’s how alliances work, sometimes an entente like Britain and France, can come into shape based on mutual interests and common adversaries.
These days Israel military cooperation with Cyprus is more common. Cyprus was a pioneer in signing exclusive economic zone agreements with foresight toward gas exploration. It signed a deal with Egypt in 2003 and Lebanon in 2007 and then Israel in 2010. In contrast, Turkey lay claim to a “blue motherland” of waters off Cyprus. Turkey says its continental shelf gives it these rights. It also supports northern Cyprus, which is unrecognized by the international community. Recently Israel, Greece and Cyprus have been exploring more cooperation on numerous levels, including tourism. In addition, an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum has met with Italy, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority playing a role.
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 Turkey want 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. This is the nationalist fervor in Turkey where Turkey has been talking about buying new submarines and also is building anti-ship missiles. Turkey wants more drilling ships for its own Turkish gas companies. Turkish Petroleum is taking the lead. This is in contrast to Cyprus and Israel where foreign gas companies play a role in the economic zones that are carved into blocks. Turkey’s push is an intensely nationalist one. It is part of Turkey’s overall change in posture from “zero problems with our neighbors” to demanding a larger role in the region.
Israel sees Greece and Cyprus as potential partners that can link its energy policy to southern Europe. Here again though Israel competes with Turkey because Turkey and Russia built the TurkStream pipeline to Europe. This potentially puts Israel at odds with powerful countries and gives Israel an alliance of smaller states that have les expertise in pipelines. The question then for Israel is whether all the talk and the signing of agreements will result in action. Cyprus, Greece and Israel are all complex democracies. In contrast, 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. In addition, relations with the Palestinian Authority are very cold. Meanwhile, Turkey would like to put its hands with Hamas, on Gaza. It tried this with the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.
Currently, Greece has sought out partners, including Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, and Saudi Arabia, UAE and other allies that share the Egyptian worldview that opposes Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood. But there are other players as well. What is the role of Tunisia? Turkey’s president went to Tunisia on December 25 for a surprise visit. Then there is Algeria, in the midst of a new political sea-change, that potentially could be more open to Israel. But Algeria’s revolutionary past makes it difficult to tip-toe toward Israel.
Netanyahu is also embattled at home. The entente with Greece and Cyprus would normally be a crowning achievement, but it comes amid new election and his desire for immunity. Certainly Israel will gain some interlocutor through this, such as Greece foreign minister Nikos Dendias. Dendias is a shuttle diplomat who recently went to Libya, Greece and Cyprus to discuss regional security. He also held talks with Abu Dhabi. He received Netanyahu on January 2 and tweeted a photo. With capable diplomat like Dendias there is hope for the East Med concept. 
In terms of engineering the pipeline will be a hurdle. It will be about as long as the NordStream pipeline from Russia to Germany. It will be longer underwater than the TurkStream pipeline across the Black Sea. In 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, it may be a challenge. But insofar as it is a way that 2020 has begun for Israeli diplomacy, it is a good sign.