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December 4, 2019 6:04 pm

How Israel Is Levering Energy to Stabilize the Region and Advance Geostrategic Objectives

avatar by Ezra Friedman

Opinion

View of the Israeli Leviathan gas field gas processing rig near the Israeli city of Caesarea, on January 31, 2019. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.

Israel, renowned as a thriving democracy in a region that is characterized by dictators, and a leader in the world of technology, is now entering a diplomatic renaissance — one that is reminiscent of the country’s 1950’s ‘Periphery Strategy.’ Because of its policies, Israel is emerging as a key energy power player in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Historically, Israel has been energy-starved and constantly in conflict with its oil-rich neighbors. Following the initial discovery of the Tamar field within its Exclusive Economic Zone, the Jewish State has found several other ‘gas giants’ that contain tens of trillions cubic meters in proven natural gas reserves.

The discovery of gas is transforming the geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean, as other countries, including Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece, have also found major gas giants within their sovereign waters. Israel is set to become not only energy self-sufficient, but also a regional exporter. This is changing Israel’s relations with many of its Eastern Mediterranean neighbors, and providing clear opportunities for advancing several critical geostrategic objectives.

Jerusalem is leveraging the discovery of gas to enhance regional stability within the Eastern Mediterranean through economic interdependence with its neighbors. This includes Israel’s inclusion as a founding member of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). The forum, formally founded in 2019, is fast becoming the regional diplomatic platform by which past enmities between states are being discarded in favor of mutually beneficial economic interests. Israel’s inclusion is itself a substantial diplomatic win —  it is the first time the Jewish State has been formally included in a regional forum that includes Arab states. This is part of a growing trend between Israel and the Gulf states, whereby once-secret ties are increasingly made public. Through this ongoing process, Israel’s existence is given legitimacy within the Arab world.

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Within the EMGF, realpolitik is the prevailing lingua franca, with participating states pursuing regional level policies that facilitate a competitive regional energy marketplace. Israel has begun exporting 85 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas worth 19.5$ billion. Jordan is also slated to start importing Israeli gas by 2020 in a deal worth 10$ billion, which will facilitate increased economic interdependence between the two neighbors. While the people of Egypt and Jordan may be ill at ease with the Jewish State, security cooperation and economic collaboration remains a staple of their respective bilateral relations with Israel.

An additional strategic development is the newly formed ‘Tripartite Alliance’ between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. Since 2009, the three countries have steadily increased cooperation on a plethora of security and economic issues of mutual concern, with significant support from the United States. Economically, the new alliance creates another potential avenue of export for Israeli gas to Europe via an undersea ‘East Med Pipeline.’ Such a pipeline would allow for Eastern Mediterranean gas exports to the rest of the European continent via Cyprus, Greece, and Italy.

Yet, what is driving Israel’s foreign policy renaissance in the Eastern Mediterranean basin with its Greek-speaking allies are equally critical security concerns. Turkey, whose foreign policy is characterized by revisionism, is aggravating regional states. Turkish violations of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty and perceived meddling in Jerusalem have created a common adversary for the members’ tripartite alliance. Turkey’s continued engagement in a litany of revisionist regional policies in northern Syria, the Aegean Sea, and on the Eastern Mediterranean basin will only continue to push Israel, Cyprus, and Greece ever closer together.

Several potential obstacles stand in the way of Israel’s continued development of natural gas. Gaza-based Hamas, the Islamic State branch in Sinai, and Iran-backed Hezbollah based in Lebanon, warrant security-focused containment and deterrence strategies. These three major security obstacles present Israel with opportunities to strengthen existing regional relationships through security cooperation with Egypt in Sinai, as well as the US, Cyprus, and Greece in the Mediterranean.

Israel also faces a major diplomatic obstacle, given its ongoing maritime boundary dispute with Lebanon. Lebanon’s dual political and economic crises present both states with a unique opportunity to renew efforts in solving the dispute. A resolution to the maritime boundary issue would allow both countries to explore potential gas deposits at will while creating incentives for stability.

Certainly, Israel is successfully leveraging the development of natural gas to create energy self-sufficiency and economic opportunities within the Eastern Mediterranean, which have the potential to become an undoubted success. This will likely lead to future gas sales to Europe, either via Egypt or through a potential EastMed Pipeline in the next decade. The EMGF is providing a unique opportunity to deepen the cooperation of member states via the exploitation of available energy infrastructure and sustainable exploitation of gas reserves. If Jerusalem continues to play a critical role in enhancing regional security, strengthening diplomatic ties, and increasing regional economic interdependence, Israel may yet become both a significant as well as openly integrated member of the Eastern Mediterranean region.

This is a shortened version of an essay published by BICOM’s research journal, Fathom. Read the full piece at fathomjournal.org.  

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