The EastMed pipeline accomplishes its strategic significance - opinion

The alliance formed between Israel and the Hellenic states is immeasurably more important than the feasibility or discontinuation of the pretentious Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis are seen following the signing of a deal to build the EastMed subsea pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, at the Zappeion Hall in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2020 (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis are seen following the signing of a deal to build the EastMed subsea pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, at the Zappeion Hall in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2020
(photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)

The Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (EastMed), which was designed to connect the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean on a route that runs between Israel, Cyprus, Greece and from there to Europe, was the most pretentious project discussed following gas discoveries in the region. The European Union (EU) has allocated funding for a feasibility study of the ambitious project. However, the feasibility study of the pipeline encountered multiple question marks through its entirety, due to its high cost (estimated around $7 b.) and its length (close to 2,000 km.). As well, in Italy where the pipeline was supposed to reach from Greece, there were often reluctant voices, mainly for reasons related to the environment and due to the opposition of the residents around the pipeline’s reach. Turkey, for its part, opposed the project, claiming it was going through its economic waters, especially after the agreement it signed with the government in Tripoli (which was in fact rejected by most of the relevant players).

Surprisingly, Washington clarified its position in the past few days. The United States (US) Embassy in Athens issued a statement on January 10th that confirmed previous reports in the Greek media regarding a US withdrawal from support for the project. The statement said the US was diverting its support towards the planned connection of power cables between Egypt and Greece (and Africa), as well as the cable between Israel, Cyprus and Greece: “These projects will not only connect vital energy sectors, but will also help prepare the region for a transformation to clean energy.” At the same time, “the United States has remained strong in its support for efforts to promote regional cooperation, including in a three-plus-one framework, which includes Israel, Greece, Cyprus and the United States.”

What is behind the change in the US position?

It is probable that the main reason is due to the obvious impracticality of the project. As well, it should contribute to reducing tensions in the region, given the Turkish position. At the same time, US economic interest should not be ruled out, since its preference might be to sell more liquefied natural gas to Europe than it does now.

As mentioned, there was not much enthusiasm for the pipeline in Europe either, even though the EU funded a feasibility study. Already at the end of October 2021, a source in the European Commission defined the project as complicated and inconsistent with the long-term goals towards green energy.

CYPRIOT PRESIDENT Nicos Anastasiades, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint news conference following the signing of a deal to build the EastMed sub-sea pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, in Athens earlier t (credit: REUTERS)CYPRIOT PRESIDENT Nicos Anastasiades, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint news conference following the signing of a deal to build the EastMed sub-sea pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, in Athens earlier t (credit: REUTERS)

What are the implications of the current American position?

It is quite clear that at this stage, it means freezing the project. It should be remembered that the main importance of the pipeline was political-strategic all along. It was an illustration, albeit a very pretentious one, of the triangle formed between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, and the energy potential of the region for Europe. This potential has been a significant catalyst for multiple common interests in a variety of fields. The Israeli-Greek-Cypriot triangle has also made a significant contribution to the regional architecture built in recent years, especially with the establishment of the Regional Gas Forum in January 2019. Actually, the Cypriot Minister of Energy is the current president of the forum, whose headquarters are in Cairo, Egypt.

Moreover, the regional export alternatives of natural gas have been established in recent years in the region (export agreements between Israel, Egypt and Jordan) and through the liquefaction facilities in Egypt. In other words, the practical feasibility of the EastMed pipeline has diminished, even without the EU’s green agenda.

Will this undermine the political-strategic cooperation in the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot triangle? Will the American-Hellenic relationship, which has become very close in recent years, be damaged? The answer to both questions is no. In many ways, the pretentious project of the gas pipeline accomplished its strategic mission.

Presumably, of the three countries participating in the project, Israel, Cyprus and Greece, the latter is the most disappointed. Israel is at the most advanced stage in terms of utilizing its gas reserves and Cyprus has managed to sign agreements with Israel, Egypt, and Lebanon (although the latter was not yet ratified by the Lebanese parliament) regarding its economic waters and has discovered gas reserves in its territory. Cyprus is in a frontal and extremely complicated confrontation with Turkey; however, it is a complex issue that shall not be discussed here. Greece has not been able to settle its deep and complex disagreements with Turkey over economic waters and is not close to it.

Nevertheless, the alliance formed between Israel and the Hellenic states is immeasurably more important than the feasibility or discontinuation of a project of this magnitude. The common interests, values and trust built between the three countries are one of the cornerstones of the regional relationships of the last decade.

Admittedly, Egypt is not upset with the US clarification, since it emphasized its prime attraction as an energy hub.

Ankara is clearly satisfied with the US position. It will strengthen its position even though it faces challenging obstacles, mainly a lack of confidence with most of the relevant actors in the region.

Nevertheless, the challenge of stabilizing tense relations in the eastern Mediterranean basin remains. It requires a more assertive US policy, which does not appear to be so now. An interesting test concerning US policy concerns the Lebanese angle: Will the gas supply from Egypt through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon actually materialize? It seems that it will, especially after the US guarantee in recent days that this deal will not be harmed due to the sanctions imposed on the Assad regime. Will the US mediation in relation to the Israeli - Lebanese maritime borderline materialized? The question marks are much bigger. It remains to be seen in the coming few weeks.

The writer is a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former Israeli ambassador to Cyprus. He previously served in senior positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently lecturers at the Jezreel Valley College.