The New Geopolitics of the Natural Gas in the Levant

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PALESTINE –ISRAEL JOURNAL OF POLITICS, ECONOMICS AND CULTURE

A Middle East Without Weapons of Mass Destruction
Vol.19 No.12 2013

Dr. Nicos Panayiotides: Journalist-Former visiting Lecturer of Political Studies

The discovery of large quantities of Hydrocarbons in the Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ) of Israel and Cyprus in 2009 and 2011 respectively, created a new geopolitical dynamic in the Levant and may lead to regional restructure of power in the wider Near East. Israel estimates that there are about 950 billion cubic meters of gas beneath its waters, while Cyprus expects that its EEZ includes 60 trillion cubic feet (tcf). Israel and Cyprus are expected to use their natural resources for their own use and economic benefit, but also- as I argue in this paper- as a “geopolitical tool” in order to further their own national interests, since are two small countries struggling for survival in a hostile regional surrounding. Their energy cooperation in the field of natural gas is very hopeful for both countries, since it can be used as a <<power multiplier >>. But which are the motives and which are the prospects for this cooperation?

The Nicosia-Tel Aviv “energy axis”.

That Israel is a country situated in a very hostile regional environment is something nobody can deny. It is in dispute with Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Hezbollah movement there. Moreover, it encounters security problems because of Hamas firing rockets from Gaza against Israel and it has very poor if not hostile relations with the “Palestinian State” in West Bank. The only Arab countries that have recognized the Jewish State are Jordan and Egypt. But as regards the latter, the “ Cool Peace” of Camp David of 1979 is in a very precarious condition. Islamist President’s Mohamed Morsi overthrow by the army on July 3 created a security vacuum in Sina, where islamists may exploit by attacking Israel. In other words, Israel is isolated in the sub-system of Near East. The energy cooperation with Nicosia offers a gold opportunity for the Jewish state in order to break this isolation and gain access to Europe.
At this point it should be noted, that the Jewish political elites had for decades the view that it was in Israel’s advantage to cooperate with non Arab states and minorities. Initially, a non Muslim alliance was shaped with the approach between Israel and Maronite -Christians of Lebanon. The two communities shared a communality of interests, periodically underlined due to the hostility of the Arab States. The Zionist – Maronite alliance was cemented during the Second Lebanon War of 1982. After the Israelis invaded Lebanon they tried to establish a friendly Maronite government by Bashir Gemayel. However, Israel’s hope that Gemayel would sign a peace treaty with Israel evaporated when he was assassinated on 14 September 1982 . His brother and successor Amin refused to cooperate with Israel.
Since then the relations between the two countries are in a state of war. Consequently, the discovery of natural gas in the respective EEZ of Israel and Cyprus creates a new dynamic in the relations between the two countries and as far Israel is concerned, it opens a window of opportunity that will help the Jewish state to gain << strategic depth>>.

The Israel-Turkey rapprochement

Turkey and Israel established close relations in the 1990’s. A particular strategic environment brought the two countries very close. They are two non Arab states that faced common threats from “rogue” regimes such as Syria, Iran and Iraq. The  << hegemonic axis >> between Israel and Turkey as has been called, was cemented with American support. Washington sought a counterbalance against all these states that threatened the regional stability and American interests. Thus, the Turkish – Israeli alliance was supplementing the American policy of the << dual containment>> . Israel and Turkey had the capacity to serve the American interests in the region by taking upon themselves tasks as regional crisis management, peace-keeping and thus leaving USA to focus on issues of greater- global concern. The Turkish – Israeli axis collapsed after the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, in which nine Turkish activists while attempting to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.
Nevertheless, as we have seen recently, Israel met the Turkish demand and apologised to Turkey for the loss of lives of the nine Turkish citizens. But what forced Israel to something it refused to do for three years? The answer is simple: The Iranian nuclear programme and the fluidity in Syria threaten Israelis who may prefer a devil they know than a devil they do not know. Who will be the successor of Bashar Assad? As it is well known, against Assad Rule in Syria are fighting extreme Islamists (Salafists) and even fighters connected to Al –Qaida. These issues are a cause of concern for Israeli politicians.
The catalyst for the rapprochement was American encouragement, not to say American pressure to its two non Arab allies. It is not accidental that Barak Obama himself announced the agreement between the two countries during his trip to Israel in March.
Is this development threatening Nicosia-Tel Aviv cooperation? According to our opinion no. Nicosia and Tel Aviv have already signed a series of agreements that have broadened their cooperation. Moreover, in our view Cyprus is considered by the Jewish State a more reliable ally than Turkey.

The Prospects for Cooperation

There are many prospects for cooperation between the two countries in the field of energy, but also in other sectors of the economy as well. The Cypriot Minister of Energy George Lakkotripis has discussed all the relevant perspectives with his Israeli counterpart Silvan Salom during his trip to Israel in April (2013). The two men announced that a new strategic dialogue has been inaugurated between the two countries regarding their energy security. It was also announced that they are discussing the details for the agreement for the exploitation of the cross-border natural gas reserves. Block 12 (Afroditi) of the Cypriot EEZ is bordering block leviathan of Israel, so there are some resources that are common for both countries. Cypriot President’s Nicos Anastasiadis visit to Israel in May enhanced further bilateral relations and deepened the strategic cooperation between the two countries.
The executive President of the State Hydrocarpons Company (KRETYK) Charalambos Ellinas speaking in the “ 2nd Annual Cypriot-Greek Oil & Gas 2013 Summit”, said that Cyprus would become an energy hub and be in a position to serve the 50 % of European Union’s needs. At the same time, Ellinas invited Israel and Lebanon to participate in the project of the Gas Liquefaction (LNG) terminal in Cyprus, that its construction has been officially announced.
Israel has already begun to use its own natural gas for domestic use. The Jewish state was importing natural gas from Egypt but the political instability there provoked problems to its transportation. The first strategic target for Israel is to succeed in attaining self efficiency. The second- as Israel has announced-is to export its Natural Gas. Therefore, the LNG Terminal in Cyprus can be useful for both countries. The idea that Israel could transfer its natural gas to Europe through a Turkish a pipeline is not the best option for the Jewish State since this pipeline must pass through hostile to Israel countries, such as Syria and Lebanon.

Multi-Regional Threats to the Projects of Natural Gas.

First of all, Cyprus must be very cautious in its next steps regarding the natural gas exploration. From the first moment that the Republic of Cyprus began drillings in its EEZ, Turkey started to threaten the Republic of Cyprus in order to coerce it to terminate the whole procedure. Turkey’s coercive tactics run at two levels: First direct threats against the Republic of Cyprus and second threats against the foreign firms that are participating in the exploitation of Cypriot Blocks. Turkey’s threats failed to force the Cypriot Government to stop the drillings. The involvement of an American Firm (Noble) and Israeli Delek prevented Turkey from fulfilling its threats. The presence of Israeli navy in the area was a deterrent factor as well.
As regards the second tactic, the Turkish Government announced that it terminates its collaboration with the Italian petroleum Firm ENI. ENI is participating in the Samsun –Ceyhan pipeline that is under construction and will transfer part of the Caspian Oil to the terminal of Ceyhan in Turkey.
Israel also encounters formidable threats for its own exploitation of natural gas. It’s two gas platforms are 15 miles away from Israel’s coastline and are within the range of Hamas in Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas, which has fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, may seek to inflict damage to the platforms. The problem is aggravated more by the Hezbollah movement – a proxy of Israel’s arch-enemy Iran. Hezbollah’s rockets are believed to be of more sophisticated technology and thus more accurate than Hamas.
On 25 April 2013, an Israeli fighter plane shot down a drone from Lebanon over the Mediterranean Sea as it was approaching the Israeli coast. The enhanced military capabilities of Hezbollah had been shown once again last October, when an Israeli missile shot down a drone sent by Hezbollah after it flew 35 miles into southern Israel.
If the Syrian President Bashar al Assad falls, Hezbollah which is Assad’s ally may attack Israel and its gas platforms in the Levant. A successful attack could harm domestic energy supply and future exports. Thus, for security reasons is better for Israel to participate in the Cypriot LNG terminal than constructing its own, because it will be in the range of its enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
In any case, the Jewish state is taking its measures. The Israeli navy is patrolling the area and provide protection to the whole project. A fast attack vessel equipped with high tech radar and carrying a dozen of sailors armed with M-16 rifles is in the area. Israel and Cyprus must also take into consideration the big picture, namely Great Powers strategies that unavoidably impact on theirs.

Natural Gas in the Levant and the Great Power’s Strategies

Russia is an energy giant on the field of Natural Gas, since it has 45 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. It supplies European countries with gas through the Nord Stream pipeline. Europe is dependent on Russia for its energy needs and Russia is dependent on Europe for the revenues from the gas. The economic might that enjoys from its hydrocarbons is translated to political power and consequently political leverage on the international arena. Any other state’s strategy that might threaten the Russian position may provoke a source of rivalry between that state and Russia. This is the reason that Russia is carefully watching the moves of other actors in the area of natural gas.
The new prospects in the Levant due to the discovery of large quantities of gas in the Cypriot and in the Israeli blocks may reduce Russia’s leading role in the field of natural gas. Consequently, the new developments in the Levant underline the need for Moscow to gain access to the new market. This is the reason according to our opinion that the Russian Firm Gazprom has signed a 20 year agreement with the Israeli Levant Marketing, an agreement that creates new data for the cooperation of the two firms in the field the exportation of liquefied natural gas. The agreement strengthens Russian position in the world market, since enables Gazprom to export to the highly prized Markets in Japan, South Korea, China and India that are not accessible via pipelines. As we detect, despite the fact Israel has a << special relationship >> with USA, the Jewish State and Russia chose to promote their respective national Interests.
At the same time, Russia wants to have a say regarding Cyprus projects for natural gas. The two countries have diachronically good relations and Russia has provided to Nicosia a loan of 2,5 billion Euro in order to support the crippling economy of the island. Moreover, Russia has a nautical base in Tartus in Syria. The possibility of Bashar All Assad’s fall worry Moscow, which seeks ways to continue to exert influence in the region. Many media have reported that Russia asked the Republic of Cyprus to offer Moscow some facilities on the island. Although these reports have been rejected by the Republic of Cyprus, we cannot ignore them at all.
Finally, USA a superpower, is actively involved in the projects in Eastern Mediterranean, since an American firm (Noble) entered into an agreement with the Cypriot Government for the commercial development of block 12 in the Cypriot EEZ.

Conclusion

The Levant, the crossroads of the western Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa is confronting important geopolitical and geo-economical developments.
The discovery of large quantities of Natural Gas in the Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ) zones of Israel and Cyprus provides the two countries with a leverage of power that will help them to strengthen their political position and afford them mutual benefit.
There are many prospects in the markets of Asia, especially in China and the emerging economy of India. Asian demand, particularly from China and India, sets the trends for global natural gas demand growth, surpassing North America as the largest gas consuming region by 2030. At the same time, the USA buys natural gas from Katar, Algeria and Oman. In the near future, however, it will be forced to seek other markets for their increasing demands. The Cypriot and Israeli gas may be provided to the American market.
Israel will break its isolation and through Cyprus can establish firm and strong ties with European Union. On the other hand, Cyprus can use its friendly relations with Israel in order to accumulate  external sources of strength end enhance its position towards Turkey’s intransigence.
Russia the energy giant is interested about the developments in Easter Mediterranean. It is not accidental that according to the Russian naval doctrine, adopted in 2001, the Kremlin is pledged to seek “sufficient naval presence” in Eastern Mediterranean in order to sustain “political-military stability” in the area. Cyprus may be included in the Russian plans.

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