The Turkish-Israeli dispute over natural resources under the eastern Mediterranean’s seabed may soon enter a new and much more dangerous phase.
Last week, it appeared Turkey was going to make good on its threats to stop a joint Israeli-Greek Cypriot venture to explore for natural gas in Greek Cypriot waters and at the same time, militarily challenge Israel’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. But as the Texas-based Noble Energy company moved a rig from Israeli waters into position off of Greek Cyprus’ south-eastern coast to begin drilling, Turkish naval vessels and warplanes limited their actions to shadowing the transfer operation, keeping outside of Greek Cypriot waters and airspace. Turkey now appears resigned, at least for the moment, to halting the project through the offices of the United Nations (UN).
But the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the UN carries an even greater risk of igniting a Turkish-Israeli military confrontation. While the political consequences to Israel of a separate Palestinian state have been much discussed, a lesser known economic factor that is attracting Turkey’s attention also threatens Israeli security and regional peace and stability. Like in Greek Cyprus, that factor is natural gas.
“Deposits worth an estimated four billion dollars lie off the Gaza coast,” a German newspaper reported.
Four billion dollars in natural gas is probably something worth fighting over for an energy-poor country like Turkey. Analyst Boris Kalnoky, writing in the German newspaper Die Welt, believes the gas constitutes the main reason behind Turkey’s belligerence towards Israel regarding Gaza rather than any alleged Palestinian suffering. The supposed Palestinian distress is simply the excuse Turkey is using to justify its threats to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The Turkish government has said its warships would escort the next aid flotilla to the Palestinian enclave, thus risking war with Israel.
“That natural gas plays a central role in the dispute with Israel was indicated in a[n] additional comment of [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan: Turkey will not allow Israel to exploit ‘one-sided’ the giant natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean,” wrote Kalnoky.
And those gas deposits are truly gigantic. They are located in what is called the Levant Basin that stretches from Egypt to Syria and includes the waters around Cyprus. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal areas from Israel’s border with Egypt north to Syria alone contain 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. They also may hold “an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil,” which, if true, would certainly add fuel to the current Israeli-Turkish tension.
Israelis reportedly joke that Moses took a wrong turn when leading his people out of the wilderness, taking them to the only place in the Middle East that didn’t have oil. But Israeli discoveries of natural gas offshore in Israel’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), described as the largest natural gas finds worldwide in the last decade, have helped make up for Moses’ sense of direction. Israel’s two big EEZ gas discoveries are the Leviathan and Tamar fields. The deposits in the Tamar field alone will make Israel self-sufficient in natural gas, thus increasing Israeli security. Deliveries are expected to begin in 2013.
And this couldn’t have come at a better time. Israel presently imports from Egypt 40 percent of its natural gas needs. But this source is becoming more and more unreliable due to Islamist attacks on the Sinai pipeline carrying the gas. As if to emphasise the fragility of this supply, the pipeline was blown up again by terrorists on Tuesday, making it the sixth attack since last February. Such interruptions only increase the importance and the blessing the Tamar field has become.
While the Tamar field will supply Israel’s domestic needs, the even larger gas deposits from the Leviathan field will be sold abroad starting in 2017. For the first three years, the Swiss bank UBS estimates this field will earn $3 billion a year for Israel. After that, the revenue for the gas will double to $6 billion annually, a very significant amount, making Israel an important gas exporter internationally.
“The exploration of its natural gas resources has become a strategic priority for Israel, particularly given the political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, and specifically in Egypt, which provides Israel with 40 percent of its gas-fired power needs and 20 percent of its electricity generation needs,” read the UBS report.
But it will be much more difficult for Israel to exploit offshore natural resources and increase its security if the Palestinian Authority manages to get recognition for a Palestinian state by the UN. The new state would lay an immediate legal claim to the 3.5 billion cubic meters of gas off its Gazan shore. This development would not only make Israel’s search for and use of gas deposits more problematic, it would strengthen the hand of Hamas, one of Israel’s most bitter enemies.
“Until now, Israel has always known to prevent any use of the gas deposits off Gaza, for it regards its utilization by Hamas as a threat to its national security,” writes Kalnoky.
By challenging Israel and threatening to break the Gaza blockade with its warships, Turkey obviously hopes to receive a share of those deposits from a grateful Palestinian government, much like France and Great Britain are the major recipients of oil deals in Libya for having helped the anti-Gaddafi rebels. Turkey’s insistence that Turkish Cyprus, which the Ankara government controls, receives benefits from the Greek Cypriot-Israeli gas exploration venture is also behind its opposition to that project. Turkey obviously wants a piece of the Levant Basin fields.
That is because Turkey badly needs energy resources and would probably risk war to get them. In its quest to implement its new neo-Ottoman foreign policy and become the major power in the Middle East, Turkey must challenge Iran and Israel. But these countries have oil or gas or both, the one ingredient missing in Turkey’s bid for regional dominance. Gaining a foothold in Gaza’s offshore gas fields would help level the playing field in this respect. And an internationally recognised Palestinian state that would grant Turkey this position would also help immensely. With Turkish support, further Palestinian claims to Levant Basin gas fields would be sure to follow.
So look for Turkey to send its warships with the next aid flotilla to Gaza. In contrast to its dispute with Israel and Greek Cyprus, there would be no American oil company in the way that could provoke an unwelcome confrontation with America’s Sixth Fleet. And since it is unlikely President Obama would place the Sixth Fleet between the two sides, a clash between Israel and Turkey would be highly likely with the status of regional power as the prize.